May 24, 2004
Unitarian ruling reversed
Good news: Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has gotten a clue, and her office has reversed its earlier ruling in which a Unitarian church was denied tax-exempt status for not meeting the approved definition of a religion.
Reversing an earlier decision, state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn announced Monday that a Unitarian church in Denison would get its tax-exempt status after all.
The decision came after the Star-Telegram reported on May 18 that the comptroller's office had ruled the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church was not a religious organization for tax purposes.
The status was denied, the state said, because the church "does not have one system of belief."
Stunned church officials said it was the first time in U.S. history that any state had denied tax exempt status to the Unitarians because of their religious philosophy. Father-and-son presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams are among past adherents of the Unitarian church.
Jesse Ancira, the comptroller's general counsel, sent a letter Monday to Dan Althoff, board president of the Denison church, informing him of the change.
"Comptroller Strayhorn asked that I review the file on your congregation's application for tax exemption," Ancira wrote. "After reviewing the submitted application ... it is my opinion that the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church is an organization created for religious purposes and should be granted the requested tax exemption."
Althoff and other members of the church could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
Strayhorn spokesman Mark Sanders said Strayhorn directed her staff to review the decision after questions were raised about it.
"She asked her general counsel to look into the matter and he overruled earlier staff decisions," Sanders said.
from Saturday shows the strength and breadth of the condemnation that Strayhorn brought on herself for her initial idiocy.
"She's either abysmally ignorant of the law or a religious bigot," said Robert London, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C. "She's acting like a grand inquisitor in deciding what should be a religion."
Jesse Ancira, general counsel for the comptroller's office, said Strayhorn is no bigot and isn't prejudiced toward any religion. He said that other Unitarian Universalist church groups have been granted tax exemptions but that each case is evaluated separately.
"In this case, we didn't think they met the test of religious worship," he said this week. "We know they have a common belief in moral and ethical principles, but there is no one statement of faith. It's a free and open belief in several religions, including those that believe in a higher power."
So what's new about that? Unitarian Universalists take pride in their different beliefs. Unitarian Universalist congregations may have traditional Christians worshipping alongside atheists and Wiccans, who are nature-worshipping witches.
Ancira says a criterion used in determining whether a group qualifies as a church is "simply a belief in God or gods, or a higher power." That nettled some religious observers, too, since other groups, including Buddhists, do not include belief in a higher power in their principles.
"We didn't get to the point of applying the higher-power test in the Red River case," Ancira said this week. The Rev. Craig Roshaven, pastor of First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, which has tax-exempt status, said his congregation is no less religious because of its diverse beliefs.
"We are a creedless church, but every Sunday we recite that love is the doctrine of the church and service is our prayer," Roshaven said. "If that's not a religious statement, I don't know what is."
What has shocked many is Strayhorn's challenge of a congregation that is part of one of America's oldest religious traditions: the Universalists, formally established in 1793, and Unitarians, founded in 1825. The groups merged in 1961.
Four former U.S. presidents -- John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft -- were Unitarians.
There are about 200,000 Unitarian Universalists in about 1,000 churches in the United States, Canada and Mexico, including 45 congregations in Texas. Fort Worth will get a close look at the Boston-based denomination in June 2005 when the group holds its national convention here. The Unitarian Universalists also met in Fort Worth in 1994.
"The Unitarian Universalist faith has been around a long time, and if it is not a church, then we are all in jeopardy," said Brent Walker, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
The Rev. Lillie Henley, pastor of the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, called Strayhorn's decision a "travesty."
"The people at the Red River congregation are very religious people, many believing in God," she said. "Just because the God they believe in isn't the same as the God of the comptroller doesn't mean she can deny them their constitutional rights of freedom of religion."
Now then. In surveying the many, many blog posts and comments on the original story, one theme I saw was the belief that Strayhorn was attempting to court the fundamentalist bloc as part of her plan to challenge Rick Perry for Governor in 2006. This makes no sense to me on several levels - for one thing, Perry has that constituency very tightly locked up (why else would he have taken that secret trip to the Bahamas
to discuss school finance "reform" with the likes of Grover Norquist and James Leininger
?), and for another, Strayhorn has largely criticized Perry from the left
as of late. Frankly, other than her public expression of distaste for strippers
, I can't think of any other recent examples of her pushing a religious conservative agenda item. Finally, as Greg
notes (scroll down to "The statewide shuffle continues"), there are still rumors that Strayhorn may switch parties before making her run for the Governor's mansion. It rather goes without saying that the fundamentalist bloc is rather tiny on our side of the aisle. As such, I don't have a clue why she did what she did, but I'll say it again: never attribute to malice that which can be chalked up to stupidity.
I would be remiss in closing this discussion if I didn't mention again that I was unhappy with some of the comments I saw in reaction to this piece regarding the state of Texas. One person in my comments implied that I was delusional for not seeing ignorant bigots everywhere I went. Folks, every place has its idiots, some of whom are more egregious than others (Strayhorn overall rates slightly on the decent side of medium idiot, in my view). Judging an entire population by the actions of one of these idiots is something that most of us normally consider to be bigotry in itself. I know that Texas has exported its share of high-profile losers lately, but let me assure you of one thing: if this place was anywhere near as bad as some have made it out to be lately, I wouldn't be here. OK?
(Hat tip to Southpaw for the heads-up.)
UPDATE: A little more info from the Statesman.
Scottie Johnson of Denison, the congregation's past president, said church officials were astonished when the exemption was denied.
"We obviously are a church and (are) meeting for religious purposes and a long established denomination," she said. "We are not just a recent player on the religious scene in any way, shape or form."
The Denison congregation was formed in 1997 and filed for tax-exempt status after affiliating with the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The church owns no property and faces little to no tax obligation.
"It was the principle of the thing," Johnson said, adding that she believes in a supreme being but knows that some of her fellow congregants do not. "Universal Unitarianism as a denomination does not require any creedal test to be a member. Every person in the church might have a slightly different idea."
The comptroller's office has said tax-exempt status cannot be granted to organizations whose members do not profess belief in "God or gods or a higher power."
Mark Sanders, Strayhorn's spokesman, said the exemption request had been denied at the staff level. He said Strayhorn asked Ancira to review the case last week after a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story examined the 17 cases in which Strayhorn's office denied tax exemptions to groups claiming to have religious affiliations.
Several of the denials were based on incomplete paperwork or because the applicant's services were not open to the public.
Sanders said Strayhorn has not asked for reviews of any of the other denials, which included requests from groups including agnostics and atheists, new age adherents and the Whispering Star Clan/Temple of Ancient Wisdom, a Copperas Cove organization of witches.
Make of that what you will.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 24, 2004 to The great state of Texas
My feeling on the religious right aspect of it is that you can't get elected as a Republican in Texas without tipping your hat to some of those folks. On the other hand, as I said before, a little reflection told me this was about the tax money and not so much about God.
I'm glad Strayhorn came to Jesus and figured out it was a bad idea to piss tax dollars down a dry hole fighting this case.
A yellow-rosed tip of the ten gallon to you, sir. Texas is just alright with me.
Although I do not partake myself, I have several friends who are practicing Unitarian Universalists to whom I had sent your original post. I'll truly enjoy sending them this update.
With so much bad news on an hourly basis, you've brightened my day.
Huzzah for free speech.
Praise the Lord! The UU's tax exemption has been saved in Texas.
I tended to think it was a tax thing, myself. Strayhorn's going to need money, and if she could go up against Perry stating that she found "X millions of dollars" by tightening up slack on tax exemptions, well...it makes her sound like she can increase revenue by not "Raise taxes".
She's just nailing tax dodgers, and everyone hates tax-dodgers.
Had the UU thing gone through, she could have rolled up all the fringe religions, brought in a decent amount of money, and used it as leverage. "If I can do this as comptroller, how much can I do as Governor?" kind of thing.
But the outcry was more than she suspected. It was no longer worth it, politically, as it'd do more harm than good.
I'm beginning to get a bit tired of the, "All Texans are assholes," bit myself. Folks, let's please remember that the most visible idiot of Texas extraction gracing our country these days ain't even purely of Texas extraction. That boy done started his life as a Connecticut Yankee.
Bush may have been born in CT, but he isn't a Yankee.
While the motivations for this may be in doubt, the act itself isn't. To say "This church is not a religion" is religious intolerance, pure and simple.
I would, in fact, like to know 'what was she thinking?', not in the stand-up comedian's sense, but as an answer to a real puzzle. How somebody who aspires to the Governorship could commit an act so deeply un-American simply amazes me.
I wonder if Strayhorn figured out that the moonies have tax exempt status in Texas and thought that when word got out on thta, then her statement here would make her look like an even bigger fool ...
For Immediate Release:
Friday, April 23, 2004
Contact: Mark Sanders
Strayhorn Response to Texas Supreme Court Ruling on
Texas State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn
(Austin)--"I could not disagree more with today's ruling from the Texas Supreme Court. Groups like the Ethical Society of Austin are not religiously based. This fight is about more than one organization trying to avoid paying their fair share. It's about protecting the groups in Texas who truly deserve to be tax exempt."
"Otherwise, any wannabe cult who dresses up and parades down Sixth Street on Halloween will be applying for an exemption."
"I will not give up this fight. I have directed my General Counsel to immediately appeal this decision to the United States Supreme Court."
Texas is the grand theocrat, Rev. Moon's "Dream State". It is controlled by theocratic religious extremists. Moon couldn't ask for anything more to help him drive the country right and theocratic.
This NPR report should scare the hell out of any American who gives a damb about the constitution or the future of the republic.
It also makes Moon's heart leap with joy. Shows that his efforts, spending BILLIONS over the last twenty five years on conservatives for the purpose of driving us right and theocratic is paying off, BIGTIME.
Despite wincing at the occasional bouts of statewide inanity, a flaming liberal will feel more at home in a Texas city (especially but not exclusively Austin) than in a bumfuck town in California or New York.
In retrospect, I liked Texas for the little things, like the Tex-Mex and the illicit thrill that tickled my spine when I bought a dildo.
Rick Perry's best chance to have a job after 2006 is for W to be re-elected so he can appoint Perry to some position not requiring confirmation.
It's an open secret in TX that Kay Baily wants to move back to TX and run for Gov. in 2006. She'll win easily (w/o my vote BTW).
Well I am relieved to see that the Texas Comptroller came to her senses albeit a bit late. I had to chuckle remembering another time, back in the seventies when my UU fellowship in Tyler, Tx as well as the Dallas church was investigated for "un-American activities" by the Texas D.P.S. They ended up with about the same degree of mud on their faces as well in that debacle.
Now I would be remiss if I did not give my two cents worth about the state of Texas. Now I do not live there anymore, but I was raised there and lived in Texas most of my life. Living now in Minnesota, so many people judge that state by people like Bush and similar such morons. But less we forget, Texas roots are found for people like Ann Richards, Sissy Fahrenthold, Bill Moyers,Jim Hightower, Dan Rather..and even Walter Cronkite spent part of his childhood in Houston. And having traveled about the country, I would pit Texas hospitality against anyone in the country. Yes it is being held hostage now by the religious right wing, and yes, more than a few politicians these days beat to the drum of the halleluyah chorus.... but to lump all people into one category seems... well a bit akin to the other isms out there... like racism, sexism... Way back in the seventies.. the first major international women's day celebration was held, not in NYC, not in California. No it was held in Houston, Texas. Texas is a big state.. It has room for the good, the bad, AND the ugly..
I'm with Glenn on this one. Praise the L... ah, I mean, praise whatever Higher Being, or Presence, or Source, if any, your spiritual self leads you to believe in! <grin /> (There's an old joke that UU prayers begin, "To Whom it may concern." I'm certain the joke was created by a UU.)
Jesse Ancira, general counsel for the comptroller's office, said Strayhorn is no bigot and isn't prejudiced toward any religion. He said that other Unitarian Universalist church groups have been granted tax exemptions but that each case is evaluated separately. / "In this case, we didn't think they met the test of religious worship," he said this week. "We know they have a common belief in moral and ethical principles, but there is no one statement of faith. It's a free and open belief in several religions, including those that believe in a higher power."
Sigh. Apparently, no one in the Comptroller's Office knows Rule One of Holes.
Ironically, in my church this past Sunday, Rev. Marriner and the religious education minister joined in a service about religious education, both for children and for adults, a service which revolved around our ongoing exploration of UUism's seven basic principles. Service topics are scheduled long in advance; there's no way this was a specific response to the comptroller's office's actions. Unlike some churches, ours attempts to educate children in the basics of other faiths as well as our own, and encourages them to explore their principles as well. We feel we all have a lot to learn, and there are many sources. Maybe Ms. Strayhorn and Mr. Ancira could use a little, uh, religious education?
Aside: I too am puzzled by the motivation for the original rejection. I reported it as a possible bone tossed to the religious right, but I admit I do not see how that helps Strayhorn's case with her base (not typically the right wing, as you correctly observed; she's not generally a nutcase) or with anyone else. Is it possible the act was directed against some person who is a member of that particular UU church? But if she was even toying with the idea of party-switching in her run for governor, I think that avenue is now closed to her.
Mr. Kuffner does not say explicitly that
this Saturday follow-up story about the reversal is also by R. A. Dyer, the Star-Telegram staff writer who wrote the original story last Monday (May 17th) about the denial of the tax exemption.
In the second story, the writer gives the
date of founding of the Unitarian portion of our
present Unitarian Universalist Church as 1825. He
does not say where.
Readers may wish to know that the Unitarian Church was in fact founded in 1567 in Koloszvar,
Translvania. Over the centuries, borders have shifted over this town and back. When it has been
Hungarian, the name is as above; when Austrian,
it is called Klaussenberg; and when Romanian,
In 1967 the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Unitarians throughout the world,
observed its/their 400th anniversary in Koloszvar/Klaussenberg/Cluj, as was widely
reported, and of course many visited it. At
present, the UUA has announced a job opening
there for a divinity student to teach English as a Second Language.
There were Unitarian settlers from England
worshipping in Colonial America, and various
early historical figures before 1825 have professed or been claimed for the faith.
Count this Hoosier-born Buckeye as one who will not stoop to Texas-bashing.
Any state that gives us Molly Ivins is a-ok in my book. Besides, Texas Liberals are like Texas anythings - just like any other, only more so.
(who has applied for a job in San Angelo at Angelo State)
Sounds as though the comptroller is helping to purify the Xn voting bloc. Liberal religions are unlikely to vote her ticket. If they can be stripped of their tax exemption, they will go under.
Meanwhile, many UU churches are fleeing their traditions and bringing in neo-Baptist ministers and members to proslytize the ignorant UU's about God and Jesus--the ever-present topics most UU's came to the UU church to get away from. The fix is in and the UU church is being Xnized at a rapid rate. It's like the way campuses were right-radicalized in the 80s, as described in "Blinded By the Right".
In the comptroller's own words she is questioning whether "faith" can occur in the absence of supreme Being. This is critical path to establishing both a state religion and a divine mandate to rule.
This isn't the only church Texas has tried to deny a tax exemption.
The mostly low-key Ethical Culture movement has a church in Austin, the Ethical Society of Austin. Their belief system is somewhat similar to UUs, but there is also some differences.
When they tried to apply for an examption, they were rejected for the same reasons as this UU church was. However, to my knowledge, that decision has been reversed.
For more information on Ethical Culture, visit the American Ethical Union at http://www.aeu.org
The Statesman story linked at the end addresses the AEU case specifically:
"Strayhorn is in a courthouse fight over religious exemptions. The case was ignited by the Ethical Society of Austin, which sued then-Comptroller John Sharp when he reversed a staff-level ruling that had granted exempt status despite the organization's lack of a prescribed belief in a supreme being.
"The Texas Supreme Court last month upheld lower court rulings that the Ethical Society of Austin, which has 60 members, is entitled to tax-exempt status as a religion. Strayhorn plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court."
'Ancira says a criterion used in determining whether a group qualifies as a church is "simply a belief in God or gods, or a higher power."'
Does it count if I acknowledge that Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn is herself a Higher Power?
If Carole Keeton Strayhorn, is the same Carol Keeton Ryland/Strayhorn/Whatever who used to be the worst Mayor in history of Austin, Worst member in History of the Railroad commission, etc.. it does not surprise me hearing of these actions! She is an idiot, and should not be voted for by any intelligent person.
I don't personally have a strong view on whether this decision was right or wrong. Please take note that it was not a blanket non-recognition of the Unitarian movement, but there was non-recognition of a particular congregation. I think some more structured analysis of the situation is interesting. Some points:
(1) If there is to be a tax exempt status for religious groups then there needs to be a definition, or rule for determining, religious groups. If there is not, then the process is arbitrary and likely to be discriminatory.
(2) Self-determination can not be the sole answer. It would be ludicrous to allow an otherwise secular flower-arranging society to self-define as a religious movement in order to qualify for tax benefits.
(3) A requirement of "a level of general recognition that a movement is of a religious nature" is unfeasible. It would make it hard for a new movement with conventional religious features (for example, a group following a self-declared prophet) to achieve this status if the "person on the street" views them as a cult or as a phoney "religion" simply aiming to achieve beneficial tax status. This majoritarian approach would not only be hard to apply, but also risks prejudice against new and minority religions and regional discrepancies (different regions will have different opinions on whether the same movement is religious, based on the religious mosaic of the particular region).
(4) Individual members of the UU have particular religious beliefs, a sample of which might contain fairly conventional Christianity, agnostisicism, Buddha-centric worship, non-mainstream Islamic beliefs, and non-realism (a form of spiritual atheism).
(5) The fact that individual members of the UU have religious beliefs can not in itself be sufficient to make the UU a religion - the same would apply to a coal miner's union or soccer club. Furthermore, the fact that the UU exists to help people explore religion could not be sufficient grounds to make UU a religion unless you are prepared to deem societies to promote inter-faith understanding, theology faculties in secular universities or local philosophy discussion groups as "religious groups". This seems to me to be a stretch of language.
(6) Worship may conceivably be a sufficient ground, but it is neither clear that all religious movements require worship (if I founded a "religion" that emphasised the importance of loving God with one's heart and soul, a doctrine of love, forgiveness and good deeds and a requirement not to indulge in physical acts of worship, it is not clear to me why this should not be a religious group) nor that non-religious movements can not worship (hymn-singing by a choir or the saying of prayers at a cultural society, for example).
(7) It is submitted that there are many very sensible, plausible rules that would include nontheistic, pantheistic and polytheistic religions without a problem but would reject the general UU movement on the ground that it has a minimal set of beliefs beyond a core which is ultimately of a philosophical but allegedly not religious nature.
(8) It is further submitted that there are other very sensible rules that would include the UU (a close consideration of their norms of worship, for example). It is a matter both of public policy and constitutional law to determine whether a test of this type or of the previous type is required - for example, if it was public policy to support mainstream Trinitarian Christianity, this would be unconstitutional, but the possibility remains open that a definition of religious grouops excluding UU could be found which is not unconstitutional on grounds of relgious discrimination, since by that definition the UU is not classified as a religion.
(9) The age of the movement is not per se relevant for determining its religious status. Perhaps what matters is the length of time that this movement has been considered a religion - certainly a long time, and whilst Unitarians have historically been dismissed as heretics, this in itself is a testament to recognition of their religious nature.
(10) However, there is the question of continuous identity within the Unitarian movement. All movements evolve, and just because a movement was religious 100 years ago does not necessarily mean its successor in title will be. The Unitarians have undergone quite a radical evolution, and while it is not disingenous to claim they are a long-recognised religious movement, it must be said that if early Unitarians were confronted with a range of modern ones, they would probably disavow at least some of the modern ones' claims to be Unitarians in the original sense - essentially classical Christians who disagreed with the notion of the Trinity. Unitarian has always been liberal, but some of the pantheistic and atheistic views current in the modern movement would not have fitted easily into the early one.
(11) The liberality of the UU has resulted in a lack of cohesive identity and different congregations may have very different identities. A congregation full of Unitarians who are essentially traditional Christians except for rejection of the Trinity, and who sing hymns and pray at their Chapel on a Sunday, is only distinguishable from their Baptist equivalents on points of doctrine. Prima facie, that congregation ought to be given the same status as the Baptists - unless, arguably, there is a point of doctrine that renders even these Unitarians a non-religious movement.
(12) The rejection of Trinity can not constitute such a point. What about the fact that although that congregation was one of basically traditional Christians, they held the belief that atheists, pantheists and agnostics could, if they wished, also fully participate in the religious life of the congregation? This doesn't throw into doubt the fact that the members of the congregation are religious, but it raises a query about whether, for all its apparent homogeneity, the congregation actually has the cohesion and unity required to be a "religious group"?
(13) Notwithstanding an affirmative answer to that question, what about a different UU congregation with a much wider set of viewpoints expressed? Again, I am not suggesting that the faiths held by the members are not genuine, sincere and valid, nor that they are somehow not truly engaging in an act of collective worship (although I suppose that point is arguable - of four people, two may be worshipping very different types of God, one might be agnostic and the other atheistic! Is this genuinely collective worhsip? They all certainly believe it is, so who we to judge?). However, it may well be that, depending on one's definitions, the congregation does not have a sufficiently unified religious basis to constitute a "religious group".
(14) It seems clear that by a certain choice rules it would be possible to deem some UU congregations as religious groups and others not to be. However, some questions are begged: is such a choice of rules logical, sensible or desirable? And is such a choice unfairly discriminatory against religions of a notably liberal nature?
It is actually very hard to suggest a universally acceptable definition, or set of rules to determine, religious groups. Would anybody care to have a go?
The issue is whether a certain UU church is a religious organization for tax exempt purposes.
Ancira agreed that it was. You don't have to be a church or act like one in order to be a tax exempt religious organization. Take the YMCA for instance. The YMCA is not a church, but it is a tax exempt religious organization.
But, is UUism a religion? No. It is a religious denomination. It has a history of being a Christian religious denomination. But now, only
10% of Unitarian Universalists are Christians.
It's amazing what 200 years in America will do for you.
Is a UU church a church? Lot's of UUs would like to get away from that name. Is a synagogue a church? Is a mosque a church? UU churches are places of religious worship.
Freedom of worship is what many early american Christian groups came to this country for. UUs take freedom of worship to great lengths.
How far can a religious denomination take "freedom of worship" and still be considered a tax exempt religious organization?
New groups based on ethical living are finding it tough to get tax exempt status, but this is all that most UUs beleive. Witch groups outside of UUism can find it hard to qualify for the tax break and the status of being a "religious organization".
So, clearly, UUs benefit from their long history as a religious denomination in the U.S. But, how much history should a new group have before it can be recognized by our government as a religious organization? I think this question is becoming more relevant as new religious groups ask for tax exempt status.
A lot of good comments here. Somehow, as soon as I heard of this incident, I was reminded of what H.L. Mencken said about the day the government required church membership. He would join the Unitarians and lay his thumb alongside his nose and work his fingers like a cornetist. I wondered if that might not be the first attempt to close off that avenue of escape. But somehow, I can't see these yahoos even knowing who Mencken was,....
As a UU and a Wiccan, this isn't surprising to me.
Our last governor stated on national TV that he denied the Ft. Hood Wiccan group permission to worship in accordance with the Constitution because he didn't "consider it a real religion". Why are we surprised when other Texas officials follow suit by deciding which "real religions" are entitled to equal protection?
Ironic that Gov. Bush swore to uphold the Constitution after being appointed President, since it's clear that he doesn't feel bound by the law of the land...
Of course, the obvious solution is to simply not grant tax-exempt status to anyone based on religion.
If you want to grant tax-exemption, base it on doing something worthwhile for society in general, with no religous strings attached, in lieu of taxes.
For example; where I grew up, the Catholics provided an affordable alternitive to public schools, which I attended as a non-catholic.
It was an excellent school, for exceptional students on either end of the spectrum, and certainly deserved tax-exemption. After all, property taxes are the primary support of public education.
This is a bit off-topic; but I noticed a reference to "Spiritual Atheism" and wanted to suggest the following link to those interested: