May 18, 2004
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.At which point milk would sour, dogs and cats would move in together, and Western civilization would fall. Oh, wait, that’s when gay people are allowed to marry. I get so confused.
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 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. […]
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.” […]
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. […]
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.
This kind of story always provokes the suggestion that maybe nobody should get a tax break for calling themselves a church, which would have the salutary effect of getting the government out of the business of ruling on what is and isn’t religion. In the real world, however, that isn’t going to happen. Meanwhile, to the State of Texas in 2004, a money-making racket founded by a third-rate science fiction writer qualifies as a “religion” and the faith of Ethan Allen and Daniel Webster doesn’t. This is what barbarism looks like. [08:15 PM]