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Some background on Strayhorn and the Unitarians

The Chron’s a little late getting into the Strayhorn/Unitarian game, but their belated effort is pretty good. It’s a concise rundown of the history of this controversy, and it provides some context. In particular, there’s a quote attributed to Strayhorn that’s been the whip for some of the bloggy beatings she’s taken, and it’s not quite about what the floggers think it is:

Of the organizations Strayhorn has rejected for tax-exempt status, several denials were based on sloppy paperwork. Other denials were based on the fact the organization is a faith-based social service group that did not meet the definition of a religion, such as meeting regularly at a location open to the public.

But in at least five cases, the underlying question has revolved around a system of beliefs that involve a supreme being or beings. They range from Unitarians to a temple of witches and pagans in Copperas Cove.

The controversy actually began in 1997 under Strayhorn’s Democratic predecessor, John Sharp, in a case involving the Ethical Society of Austin.

The group is an offshoot of the American Ethical Union and the Ethical Cultural movement that began in 1876. They describe themselves as “ethical humanists” who hold a unifying belief that “within human experience ethics is central.”

But the movement takes no position on whether there is a supreme being.

Shortly after Sharp’s staff granted the Ethical Society of Austin its religious status, the Austin American-Statesman ran a story about it with the headline “Godless Group Gets Religious Exemption.”

That same morning, Sharp reversed his staff and ordered no organization be granted religious status unless it believes in “God, Gods or a higher power.” In the Texas courts, this became known as the “Supreme Being test.”

The Ethical Society of Austin sued. Strayhorn adopted Sharp’s standard, inherited the lawsuit and continued to fight against granting the society religious status.

“The irony in all of this is … the more supernatural a religion is, the easier it is to satisfy the comptroller’s test,” said David Weiser, a lawyer representing the Ethical Society of Austin.

Weiser said a pantheistic religion that performs animal sacrifices would find it easier to win a religious designation than a group based on highly reasoned beliefs.

“The test she advocates doesn’t help get to the bottom of whether a group is a sham or not,” Weiser said.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed. Without a written opinion, the court upheld a 3rd Court of Appeals order saying Strayhorn had been wrong in denying religious status to the Ethical Society of Austin.

The court noted that rulings in New York, California, Illinois, Maryland and the District of Columbia dating back to 1957 had determined Ethical Culture groups were organized religions.

“We understand the First Amendment to require a broader definition of what should be considered a religion than a simple Supreme Being test offered by the comptroller,” the 3rd Court ruled.

Strayhorn immediately promised to take the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. She said it is about “more than one organization trying to avoid paying their fair share.” She said it is about protecting groups that 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,” Strayhorn said.

This oft-cited quote comes from her fight against the tax exemption granted to the Ethical Society of Austin, not the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church. A bit ironic when contrasted with David Weiser’s statement, but clearly not an attempt to link the Unitarians to the Church of the SubGenius or some such. Still doesn’t explain to me why she went off the rails with the Red River folks, though. I can’t help but think that if this had been a decision made by a lower-level staffer, Strayhorn would have said so by now to deflect the heat.

Anyway, check it out. Meanwhile, Jim D reports from an actual UU service in Galveston. And life goes on.

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One Comment

  1. Steve Bates says:

    Regrettably, Jim D indulges in a degree of religious condescension toward UU’s that I never would have expected of him. (Yes, of course, I did register my regret on his site as well.) If the left-leaning part of the political spectrum ends up fighting internal religious wars, the terr… ah, I mean, Strayhorn… will have won.