May 19, 2004
Some further thoughts on Strayhorn and the Unitarian Church

Well, now. I've had some posts picked up far and wide, but I do believe this one has gone about as far and wide as anything I've ever done. Nearly 9000 visits later, there are a few things to say.

First, for those keeping score, here's a (probably outdated by now) list of folks who linked to that post:

Dallas Morning News Daily (no permalinks, from May 17 at 4:41 PM EDT)
Kos diary
J. LeRoy Blogfest
Walk In Brain
Bird On The Moon
The Left End of the Dial
Liberty's Blog
that good night
Chaos dot org
The Ghost of Howard Beale
Datalounge forum
BeliefNet forum
And of course Atrios, from whom most avalanches of good traffic come.

Elsewhere, Kevin Drum picked it up from Electrolite, who'd gotten it from the same source as me, Julia. BoingBoing also picked it up from Electrolite.

As you'd expect, people reacted with all kinds of indignation, shock, outrage, what have you. I've enjoyed the comment thread on my post, which has been pretty thoughtful, but some of the posts and comments I've seen there and elsewhere have been, shall we say, a wee bit broad in their indictments of the guilty parties. (I'm not the only one who thinks this, by the way.) So let's clear up a few things.

This was the action of one person, one person who acted on the arbitrary and ill-thought out rule put in place by her predecessor (a Democrat, I might add). It's true that a lot of people voted for her, but you know, the issue of whether or not Unitarianism is a religion just didn't come up in the campaign. Maybe many of those people would agree with what she said and did, but given that they were never asked to evaluate her position on Unitarianism - as the job of Comptroller has to do with handling the state's money, most of the campaigning had to do with boring financial stuff - I find it questionable at the least to conclude that the voters are complicit in her idiocy. And I say this as someone who's never voted for Carole Keeton Strayhorn in his life, though prior to her recent attack of the stupids I admit I considered with some favor the possibility that she'd switch parties in order to make that run for Governor we all know she's lusting to do. I was never fully sold on that idea because she has a history of saying things that make me gag. But I digress.

Next, as Antinome pointed out in my comments, it's a bit hard to understand why Strayhorn is pursuing this agenda, as the courts have already slapped down her line of reasoning, and they've left little doubt as to their opinion of it.

What is not clear to me is why Strayhorn is not in contempt of Court by continuing to apply the standard she applied to the Unitartians since according to footnote 4 of the opinion:

"In addition, the trial court ruled that the denial of tax-exempt status violated the Texas Tax Code and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and permanently enjoined the Comptroller from using "worshiping God" or "worshiping a Supreme Being" as the litmus test for determining an organization's tax-exempt status. The trial court also awarded attorney's fees to the Ethical Society."

Another interesting quote from footnote 10:

"Likewise, we reject the Comptroller's argument that our assessment of the Ethical Society's religious nature and purpose should be based on the "common understanding" of the term "religion." Although many of the definitions cited to us by the Comptroller do include the concept of a Supreme Being or a supernatural reality, e.g., Black's Law Dictionary 1292 (6th ed. 1990) (religion "in its broadest sense includes all forms of belief in the existence of superior beings exercising power over human beings. . ."), the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect dissenters from being forced to take the position favored by the majority in violation of their own religious consciences. See Everson v. Board of Educ., 330 U.S. 1, 8-10 (1947). Because the scope of religious belief defies easy characterization, we believe that a constitutionally sufficient inquiry cannot be bound by this particular common understanding of religion. Otherwise, the courts would find themselves as a matter of law declaring entire belief systems that certainly qualify as religions-- such as Buddhism, Taoism, and some strains of Unitarianism--to be outside of the First Amendment's protection."

The Court considered Unitarians basically the easier, more obvious case. (I think the "some strains" refers to the fact that some strains of Unitarianism do believe in God and therefore do not fall within the example, though the note could have been written more clearly).

So this is a pointless crusade by one person who hasn't got the sense to realize that like with instant replay, the outcome ain't gonna be any different this time around. In better times, we'd have all had a good laugh at Strayhorn's expense and gone on with our lives. Have we all forgotten that one should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity?

Yes, I know, some of you are warming up your "first they came for the Unitarians" argument in the bullpen. I do agree that we ignore such things at our peril, but we ought to be sure that it is being ignored first. I for one have no intention of forgetting this incident - hell, I still rag on her for sandbagging us all on the budget deficit in 2002 - but with the courts already having ruled against her, I confess that I'll be frying some of my bigger fish first. There are plenty of more immediate things to be concerned about, and there's room for this on the back burner.

Now after all this, if you still believe that Texas is some kind of barbaric place that ought to be sawed off or given back to Mexico or whatever, well, other than pointing out that some folks have been saying the same sort of things about Cambridge, Massachussettes this week, there's not much more I can say to you. I like it here just fine, and I make no apologies for that. I'm not going to spell out why - for one thing, it'll sound too much like I doth protest too much, and for another, it's not something that can really be conveyed by words. You have to try it for yourself, and either you get it or you don't. If you don't, that's fine. This is a big country, and there's surely someplace that suits your needs. I'd just as soon you not be here if all you're gonna do is bitch about it.

Thanks for listening. Enjoy your stay, and do come back if you did.

UPDATE: Ginger is more concerned about Strayhorn's efforts to strip the tax-exempt status from the UU Church than I am. She makes a good case. Jim D is thinking along similar lines. He also left his comments in this Kos diary, where a few of us good Texans laid a little smack on a particularly nasty bigot.

UPDATE: Former Texan (and good buddy of mine) David chimes in with his Texas-to-Pittsburgh transition story.-

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 19, 2004 to The great state of Texas | TrackBack

Bravo, Charles. Don't let them wear you down.

I've defended my decision to live in Texas many times to those who repeat the meme, "what do you expect from Texas; that's where the Bushes live; that's where DeLay is from; ..." etc. etc. ad nauseam. I usually start by reminding them that Gore took Houston... the city, not the greater metro area... in 2000. For the few critics in whom that does not evoke some surprise and re-evaluation, I simply abandon them; they have their stereotypes and are unwilling to reconsider.

Yes, I know, some of you are warming up your "first they came for the Unitarians" argument in the bullpen. ... There are plenty of more immediate things to be concerned about, and there's room for this on the back burner.

Maybe, Charles, it depends on whose ox is gored? (Just as in 2000, it depended on whose Gore was axed?) I suspect I am not atypical in my reaction as a UU: Strayhorn's ruling simply hits too close to home, and it thus becomes a front-burner issue for me. But there's more to it than that.

I'm not seriously concerned that Strayhorn will prevail in her ruling. Nor did I ask for, neither do I reject out of hand, the help or "support" (and in some cases I use the term loosely) of some of the more vociferous commenters who are not themselves UU's.

But I cannot see the Niemoller quote as anything but appropriate here. Who knows why Strayhorn picked on Unitarian Universalists... if she knew squat about us, she would have looked for another, easier first victim... but we are not unique, and other liberal religions may well find themselves in her sights, or in the sights of other equally foolish Texas Republicans (is that an oxymoron?).

Are the theocratic inclinations of Bush, Strayhorn et al really a back-burner issue? Are the Gen. Boykins among us not among the most dangerous people we face, worldwide? Given the religious component of the "war on terra," in which Bush sees it as crusade and al-Qaeda sees it as jihad, I think we are ill-advised to ignore even petty fools like Strayhorn. I've long ago realized that religion will not save the world... but it may well have the potential to end it. Heads up, everyone; that's all I ask.

Posted by: Steve Bates on May 20, 2004 12:09 AM

One of the other disappointing types of comments I saw in the previous post is the "Hey, maybe we can get Scientology revoked, too."

I'm guessing they're mostly joking, but it's always sad to see people say that they don't mind a ridiculous decision if it can be used against an icky organization (Microsoft is a common one on Slashdot, which is where I usually see this kind of behavior).

Posted by: Alexis on May 20, 2004 5:13 AM

Steve, I don't mean to sound dismissive. While I feel confident that this line of reasoning will continue to be rejected, I agree that we do need to shine a light on it and keep it from taking hold. All I'm saying is that I don't think we're at Defcon 1 levels yet.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 20, 2004 7:08 AM

equally foolish Texas Republicans (is that an oxymoron?)

Not oxymoronic, but possibly redundant.

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Posted by: CrispyShot on May 20, 2004 8:58 AM

Thanks our pig-woman of a Comptroller, we're probably going to have to give sacrifice Dallas to the Texas-haters. Fine with me.

I tried a more light-hearted take on the subject, as usual (click on my name). I won't even pile on Scientology, which I think is a human gullibility pyramid scheme founded by an insane sci-fi hack, currently using C-list celebrities and enough lawyers to staff several large firms.

Wait, I guess that means I just piled on Scientology. Forgive me!

Posted by: norbizness on May 20, 2004 9:35 AM

I sent this story to a friend of mine, a UU minister in California. Her response:

"May the ghost of Steven Fritchman haunt their dreams! (Steven Fritchman was a UU minister in LA during the McCarthy era. He and his church refused to sign an oath of loyalty, and lost tax-exempt status until they won a legal battle that said otherwise.)"

As to Texas bashers, well, as a New Yorker, you should be used to it. It's hard to work up any real hate for a state that only has two seasons, Summer and January. I think I could take it or leave it. Except for the barbecue. And the Tex Mex cooking. And Mark Cuban. Ah, hell. I guess we'll keep the damned state. If the tent is big enough to include Nebraska (Motto: "Homogeneity is underrated") and California ("Sure, we have the Governator. But our education system is still better than Mississippi's!"), I guess we can include Texas.

So long as I don't have to visit in July, I'm happy.

Posted by: Ron on May 20, 2004 10:15 AM

"Not oxymoronic, but possibly redundant." - CrispyShot

Oops. That's what I get for writing late at night. You're right, of course. <partisan_grin> "Wise Texas Republican" would be an oxymoron, but as you rightly point out, "foolish Texas Republican" merely piles on a needless adjective. </partisan_grin>

Posted by: Steve Bates on May 20, 2004 10:35 AM

Even assuming that Texas could be fairly characterized as a desert sparsely populated by bigoted, guncrazed rednecks, I must confess that the argument "Yes, but have you tried the barbecue?" would still carry a great deal of weight with me. There's principle, and then there's brisket, and you have to keep your priorities clear.

Posted by: alkali on May 20, 2004 11:36 AM

Finding myself in the odd position of defending Texas Republicans (or at least some of them of the judicial variety),but living up to my name, I would point out that one of the three judges on the panel of the Austin Court of Appeals that ruled unanimously against Strayhorn included one Republican (Justice Yeakel) who was subsequently named to the federal bench by Pres. Bush. The Texas Supreme Court that denied the petition for review is made up completely of Republicans (I would have preferred the petition was "refused" not "denied" but you can't have everything, Refused says the opinion is correct, denied basically says there may be some errors but not any important enough to fix)

Of course Yeakel lost his seat in the Austin Court of Appeals because he lost his seat to an unknown with the last name of Law ( (of course a Houston Democrat has little grounds for mocking anyone else for elections determined based on the person's last name)

Posted by: Antinome on May 20, 2004 4:16 PM

I wouldn't characterize the anti-Texas comments as bigotry, but I understand why they annoy you. I grew up in Fort Worth, went to school in Denton, worked after college in Dallas, El Paso and Lubbock, and moved away permanently (I hope) 14 years ago. My mother (who grew up on Washington state) still lives in Fort Worth, and I'm always urging her to leave, and my criticisms of the state annoy her, just as criticisms of the state annoy you.

If you ever move away from Texas, and then return a few years later, you will be shocked at the enforced ignorance and backwardness of the place. When you live there you think you're aware of it, but you're aware of only part of it. It takes a few years' decompression to fully comprehend the awfulness of Texas.

A bunch of geniuses in my mom's neighborhood on Fort Worth's west side discussed recently whether to make it a gated community to protect themselves from the hordes of blacks and Latinos who live in the nearby Como section of town. A newcomer to the 'hood (a Realtor) called a meeting at her house to discuss starting a neighborhood watch and installing gates on the entrance streets. One of the first things the Realtor asked was: "Do we have any blacks living in this neighborhood?"

My mom got up and left. She was the only one who did so.

I keep telling her that decent people don't stay in Texas, but she's in denial, just as you are, Charles.

I still root for the Cowboys, though.

You can take the boy out of Texas but you can't fully take the Texas out of the boy. To my everlasting shame.

Posted by: Holden Lewis on May 21, 2004 11:15 AM

Thanks for the, uh, diagnosis, Holden, but maybe you should try visiting my neighborhood for a little while before you make any judgments about the amount of ignorance and backwardness in which I apparently wallow, OK?

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 21, 2004 12:32 PM

... some of you are warming up your "first they came for the Unitarians" argument....

Well, no, first they came for Ethical Culture...

Second they came for the Unitarians.

Posted by: Raven on May 22, 2004 5:26 AM

Also covered at:
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (blog)
Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference (posted April 20, before this news item)

Posted by: Raven on May 22, 2004 5:48 AM

Ongoing NEWS and WEB searches via Google.

Posted by: Raven on May 22, 2004 5:55 AM

The Victoria Advocate, Tuesday, May 25th, 2004:

Strayhorn reverses herself on church's tax status

Reversing an earlier decision, state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn said Monday that a Unitarian church in Denison on the Texas-Oklahoma border will get tax-exempt status.   ...

Posted by: Raven on May 25, 2004 10:29 PM