Texas official denies UU tax exemption
bryanw at tjsl.edu
Sun May 23 18:25:12 PDT 2004
Does anyone on this list think the following reported action by Texas state authorities is consistent with the First Amendment?
I am admittedly somewhat biased, since I am an atheist member of the First UU Church of San Diego. (That is not as silly as it may sound to some, but I don't have time or inclination to go into a lengthy explanation of my personal philosophy on religious matters or that of the UU Church. Suffice it to say that the UU movement has a very thoughtfully developed approach to welcoming non-theists of various stripes as participants and members, though most UU-ers are in fact clearly "religious," and many are traditionally "theist," by any reasonably broad definition of the terms.)
Thomas Jefferson School of Law
Unitarian group denied tax status
By R.A. DyerFort Worth Star-Telegram Staff Writer
AUSTIN - Unitarian Universalists have for decades presided over
births, marriages and memorials. The church operates in every state,
with more than 5,000 members in Texas alone
But according to the office of Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a
Denison Unitarian church isn't really a religious organization -- at
least for tax purposes. Its reasoning: the organization "does not
have one system of belief."
Never before -- not in this state or any other -- has a government
agency denied Unitarians tax-exempt status because of the group's
religious philosophy, church officials say. Strayhorn's ruling clearly
infringes upon religious liberties, said Dan Althoff, board president for
the Denison congregation that was rejected for tax exemption by the
"I was surprised -- surprised and shocked -- because the Unitarian
church in the United States has a very long history," said Althoff, who
notes that father-and-son presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were
His church is just one of several Unitarian congregations in North
Texas, including churches in Fort Worth, Arlington and Southlake.
Strayhorn's ruling, as well as a similar decision by former Comptroller
John Sharp, has left the comptroller's office straddling a sometimes murky
gulf separating church and state.
What constitutes religion? When and how should government make that
determination? Questions that for years have vexed the world's great
philosophers have now become the province of the state comptroller's
Questions about the issue were referred to Jesse Ancira, the
comptroller's top lawyer, who said Strayhorn has applied a consistent
standard -- and then stuck to it. For any organization to qualify as a
religion, members must have "simply a belief in God, or gods, or a higher
power," he said.
"We have got to apply a test, and use some objective standards," Ancira
said. "We're not using the test to deny the exemptions for a particular
group because we like them or don't like them."
Since Strayhorn took over in January 1999, the comptroller's office has
denied religious tax-exempt status to 17 groups and granted them to more
than 1,000, according to records obtained by the Star-Telegram.
Although there are exceptions, the lion's share of approvals have gone to
groups that appear to have relatively traditional faiths, records show.
But of the denials, at least a fourth include less traditional groups,
the records show. In addition to the Denison Unitarian church, the
rejected groups include a Carrollton group of atheists and agnostics, a
New Age group in Bastrop, and the Whispering Star Clan/Temple of Ancient
Wisdom, an organization of witches in Copperas Cove.
Some of the denials occurred because of missing paperwork or other
problems, according to the comptroller's office. A few, like the denial
for the New Age group and the witches group, were decided because their
services were closed to the public, according to documents.
But the denials of the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church in
Denison and the North Texas Church of Freethought in Carrollton, as well
as an earlier denial by Sharp for the Ethical Culture Fellowship of
Austin, were ordered because the organizations did not mandate belief in a
The disputed tax dollars don't amount to much, but the comptroller has
taken a stand on principle, Ancira said.
"The issue as a whole is, do you want to open up a system where there
can be abuse or fraud, or where any group can proclaim itself to be a
religious organization and take advantage of the exception?" he said.
Those who oppose the comptroller's "God, gods or supreme being" test
say that it can discriminate against legitimate faiths. For example,
applying that standard could disqualify Buddhism because it does not
mandate belief in a supreme being, critics say.
Opponents note that the federal government applies less stringent rules
for federal tax exemptions, yet manages to discourage fraud and abuse.
They also question whether the comptroller's office has formulated excuses
to discriminate against nontraditional groups, such as those that include
witches and pagans.
But Ancira says it's up to the comptroller's office to interpret state
law, which he describes as rather vague. He insists the comptroller never
favors one religion over another.
"This comptroller, in particular, wants everybody on a level playing
field," he said.
The comptroller's office has not always barred "creedless" religions
from tax exemption, said Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law
professor who specializes in religious liberty issues.
That standard first came up in 1997, when then-Comptroller Sharp ruled
against the Ethical Culture Fellowship of Austin. In making that decision,
Sharp overturned the recommendation of his staff.
The Ethical Culture Fellowship sued, claiming that Sharp overstepped
his authority. Allied with the group in the ongoing lawsuit are pastors
from a broad range of faiths, including Baptists, Lutherans and
Both the lower court and the Texas Supreme Court have ruled against the
state's decision. In one opinion, an appeals court said the comptroller's
test "fails to include the whole range of belief systems that may, in our
diverse and pluralistic society, merit the First Amendment protection."
Strayhorn vows to continue the legal fight to the U.S. Supreme Court,
if necessary. "Otherwise, any wannabe cult who dresses up and parades down
Sixth Street on Halloween will be applying for an exemption," she said in
a April 23 news release.
The Red River Unitarian Universalist Church, the 50-member congregation
whose tax application was rejected by Strayhorn's office, has held
services in Denison for the seven years. Althoff said his group includes
"hard-core atheists" as well as "New Agey-type people."
But the lack of a single creed is a hallmark of Unitarianism, Althoff
said. Instead, Unitarian Universalists have seven guiding principles,
including "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we
are a part," according to the Unitarian Universalist Web site.
The group also draws from various religious and philosophical
traditions, including Jewish, Christian, humanist and Earth-centered
teachings, but promotes individual freedom of belief, according to the Web
site. It notes that Unitarians and Universalists have operated in the
United States for at least 200 years, although the two groups did not
merge until 1961.
It now includes about 40 congregations in Texas, and more than 1,000 in
the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Despite its lack of a specific creed, Unitarian Universalism is as much
a religion as any other, Althoff said. From his perspective, religion is
not just about the answers to life's big questions, but also calls on
people to evaluate the questions themselves.
"It seems to me that any [group] that is specifically organized to
address and explore the issues of what constitutes the good life, both
here and perhaps in the afterworld, would qualify" as a religion, Althoff
The Rev. Anthony David, lead pastor of Pathways Church in Southlake,
said he is disturbed by the comptroller's decisions because it ignores
Unitarian Universalists' belief that spiritual fulfillment can emerge in
"different ways at different levels."
"It reflects an incredible misunderstanding of what a church needs to
look like," David said.
Pathways teaches that God is a term that describes the source of
ultimate meaning and purpose, but the church does not advocate a
one-size-fits-all theology, David said.
"Creedlessness doesn't mean no belief or anything goes," he said.
Craig Roshaven of Fort Worth's First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist
Church said he has followed the comptroller's decisions with growing
His group has tax-exempt status, but he wonders what's to prevent
Strayhorn from revoking it.
"The comptroller's logic could be applied to any of us," he said.
Ancira said the comptroller's office has no plans for such reversals.
But then again, said Ancira, "There's nothing preventing us from doing
Staff Writer Darren Barbee contributed to this report.
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