Texas official says Unitarian church not a tax-exempt religion

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 Texas 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 nor 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, Texas, congregation that was rejected for tax exemption by the comptroller's office.

"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 both Unitarians.

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 office.

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 Fort Worth 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. In addition to the Denison Unitarian church, the rejected groups include a Carrollton, Texas, group of atheists and agnostics, a New Age group in Bastrop, Texas, and the Whispering Star Clan/Temple of Ancient Wisdom, an organization of witches in Copperas Cove, Texas.

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, the North Texas Church of Freethought in Carrollton, and an earlier denial by Sharp for the Ethical Culture Fellowship of Austin, were ordered because the organizations did not mandate belief in a supreme being.

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 and 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 Mennonites.

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 an 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 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 said.

The Rev. Anthony David, lead pastor of Pathways Church in Southlake, Texas, said he is disturbed by the comptroller's decision 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 dismay.

His group has tax-exempt status, but he wonders what's to prevent Strayhorn from revoking it.

"The comptroller's same 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 so."