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Texas official says Unitarian church not a tax-exempt religion
Kansas City Star ^ | 5/17/04 | R. A. Dyer

Posted on 05/19/2004 8:58:20 AM PDT by Egregious Philbin

AUSTIN, Texas - (KRT) - 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."


TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Government; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: rino; shesnorepublican; theegoofcarole; unitarians

1 posted on 05/19/2004 8:58:20 AM PDT by Egregious Philbin
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To: Egregious Philbin

Tax everything, nothing and no one exempt.


2 posted on 05/19/2004 9:02:15 AM PDT by jpsb (Nominated 1994 "Worst writer on the net")
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To: Egregious Philbin

I'm no big fan of the ultra left-wing Unitarians, but in my opinion there's no way this decision is going to legally stand in court.


3 posted on 05/19/2004 9:02:19 AM PDT by jpl ("You can go to a restaurant in New York City and meet a foreign leader."- John Kerry)
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To: Egregious Philbin
The organization "does not have one system of belief."

Let's stretch a very tiny bit: The Pope says one thing, Mel Gibson's father says another -- Hey! The Roman Catholic Church does not have one system of belief! Let the tax revenue flow, Baby!

4 posted on 05/19/2004 9:04:35 AM PDT by ClearCase_guy (You can see it coming like a train on a track.)
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To: jpl

A church without a creed is just a hallmark card. And those are taxed. Probably not even the funny shoebox variety. Just schmaltz.


5 posted on 05/19/2004 9:04:48 AM PDT by clarissaexplainsitall
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To: Egregious Philbin

I suppose getting an exemption for my Church of Monday Night Football is out of the question.


6 posted on 05/19/2004 9:06:12 AM PDT by Dog Gone
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To: Egregious Philbin
presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were both Unitarians.

They would roll over in their graves if they saw what it has become.

7 posted on 05/19/2004 9:08:46 AM PDT by Protagoras (Control is the objective , freedom is the obstacle.)
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To: Egregious Philbin
Why do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah's Witness?

Someone who knocks on your door and has nothing to say!
8 posted on 05/19/2004 9:08:51 AM PDT by 2banana (They want to die for Islam and we want to kill them)
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To: jpl

The first question that came to my mind was - "do the Scientologists have tax-exempt status?"


9 posted on 05/19/2004 9:10:20 AM PDT by Egregious Philbin
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To: jpsb
Tax everything, nothing and no one exempt.

OR

Tax nothing and everything and everybody is exempt.

10 posted on 05/19/2004 9:10:30 AM PDT by Protagoras (Control is the objective , freedom is the obstacle.)
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To: Egregious Philbin
The first question that came to my mind was - "do the Scientologists have tax-exempt status?"

Yes, they do.

11 posted on 05/19/2004 9:14:28 AM PDT by gdani (letting the marketplace decide = conservatism)
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To: Dog Gone
"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.

I suppose getting an exemption for my Church of Monday Night Football is out of the question.

Looks like you should be ok by that guys standard.
12 posted on 05/19/2004 9:15:09 AM PDT by TalonDJ
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To: 2banana

I always heard it as "someone who knocks on your door for no reason".


13 posted on 05/19/2004 9:15:46 AM PDT by hellinahandcart
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To: Egregious Philbin

This decision is totally out of line.


14 posted on 05/19/2004 9:16:31 AM PDT by HostileTerritory
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To: Dog Gone

Not if you worship Howard Kossell...;)


15 posted on 05/19/2004 9:16:51 AM PDT by WinOne4TheGipper (I cannot believe I just said that!)
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To: Egregious Philbin
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.

This is not going to stand. Buddhists don't have to believe in a supreme being either. The government has a pretty big burden to overcome to say, "This isn't a religion", and this guy hasn't met it.

16 posted on 05/19/2004 9:19:02 AM PDT by RonF
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To: Egregious Philbin
The organization "does not have one system of belief."

By this logic, the Democrat party does not qualify as a political organization.

17 posted on 05/19/2004 9:21:24 AM PDT by VisualizeSmallerGovernment (Question Liberal Authority)
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To: WinOne4TheGipper

The High Priest

18 posted on 05/19/2004 9:21:41 AM PDT by Dog Gone
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To: Protagoras

If I recall correctly, Unitarians were once a Christian denomination that believed in God and Jesus but believed them to be simply different aspects of a single Godhead, instead of a Triune God. How they got hooked up with the Universalists is unknown to me.


19 posted on 05/19/2004 9:22:19 AM PDT by RonF
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To: VisualizeSmallerGovernment
By this logic, the Democrat party does not qualify as a political organization.

Wasn't it Will Rogers who said, "I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat."?

20 posted on 05/19/2004 9:23:16 AM PDT by RonF
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To: RonF
If I recall correctly, Unitarians were once a Christian denomination that believed in God and Jesus but believed them to be simply different aspects of a single Godhead, instead of a Triune God.

No surprising, it's one of the most difficult concepts in Christianity.

21 posted on 05/19/2004 9:24:56 AM PDT by Protagoras (Control is the objective , freedom is the obstacle.)
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To: Egregious Philbin
It's where spacecase hippies go when they want to say they "go to church". Buncha loons.

But keeping as much money as possible away from Big Stupid Government is always a good thing.

22 posted on 05/19/2004 9:25:47 AM PDT by Hank Rearden (Is Fallujah gone yet?)
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To: Dog Gone

23 posted on 05/19/2004 9:28:33 AM PDT by AmishDude
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To: Dog Gone
Church of Monday Night Football

Would Green Bay be a holy city in your faith?

24 posted on 05/19/2004 9:31:39 AM PDT by Freebird Forever
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To: Dog Gone

"I suppose getting an exemption for my Church of Monday Night Football is out of the question."


You could try, and call it a "Hail Mary Play"?


25 posted on 05/19/2004 9:31:49 AM PDT by cavan
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To: jpl

Agreed


26 posted on 05/19/2004 9:32:07 AM PDT by LiteKeeper
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To: Freebird Forever

I think Green Bay is Hell.


27 posted on 05/19/2004 9:33:09 AM PDT by Dog Gone
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To: jpsb

Just get rid of the income tax and let people say what they want.


28 posted on 05/19/2004 9:33:48 AM PDT by Blood of Tyrants (Even if the government took all your earnings, you wouldn't be, in its eyes, a slave.)
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To: Egregious Philbin

Are moon worshipers exempted?


29 posted on 05/19/2004 9:39:01 AM PDT by Ben Chad
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To: Protagoras

Yes! back then they were a Chirstian centered church even if they didn't belive in Christ's divinity.


30 posted on 05/19/2004 9:39:30 AM PDT by FlatLandBeer
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To: jpsb
Tax everything, nothing and no one exempt.

Tax no incomes, only retail sales. Repeal the 16th Amendment. No exemptions necessary.

31 posted on 05/19/2004 9:41:57 AM PDT by Maceman (Too nuanced for a bumper sticker)
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To: 2banana

How do you get Unitarians to leave your neighborhood?

Burn a question mark on their lawn


32 posted on 05/19/2004 9:42:19 AM PDT by kidd
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To: Egregious Philbin
Does being the "High Priest of Beer" make me a church and tax-exemt?

Uh oh.

33 posted on 05/19/2004 9:42:39 AM PDT by SquirrelKing
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To: Egregious Philbin

Isn't the Unitarian Creed essentially:

The Fatherhood of God.
The Brotherhood of Man.
The Neighborhood of Boston.


34 posted on 05/19/2004 9:43:08 AM PDT by Doctor Stochastic (Vegetabilisch = chaotisch is der Charakter der Modernen. - Friedrich Schlegel)
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To: FlatLandBeer
Yes! back then they were a Chirstian centered church even if they didn't belive in Christ's divinity.

At least they believed in something. Unlike the current incarnation.

I didn't realize that the Unitarians were not christian back then. I'll have to look it up, it's kinda interesting.

35 posted on 05/19/2004 9:45:35 AM PDT by Protagoras (Control is the objective , freedom is the obstacle.)
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To: Doctor Stochastic
Isn't the Unitarian Creed essentially...

I believe that they begin each prayer with "To whom it may concern"

36 posted on 05/19/2004 9:48:43 AM PDT by dinasour
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To: dinasour
I believe that they begin each prayer with "To whom it may concern"

Sort of like grafitti on a weapon of mass destruction.

37 posted on 05/19/2004 9:50:04 AM PDT by Doctor Stochastic (Vegetabilisch = chaotisch is der Charakter der Modernen. - Friedrich Schlegel)
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To: Egregious Philbin
One day I got curious and cruised some official-looking web sites that claim to state what Unitarianism was all about. My impression was that their big thing is being non-judgemental - to the point that they don't have any concrete cultural values that they are trying to transmit from generation to generation. It looked more like a social club. (I looked up Freemasonry at the same time and got much the same result.)

My definition of a "religion" requires that it 1) define a set of cultural values and 2) provide a vivid and effective mechanism for transmitting them from one generation to the next. By this definition, I guess Unitarianism wouldn't qualify.

38 posted on 05/19/2004 9:54:40 AM PDT by snarkpup
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To: Protagoras
presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were both Unitarians.

*************************************

They would roll over in their graves if they saw what it has become.

No kidding. Whatever the Unitarians once were, all they are now is spelled out pretty plainly on their website. Right below "Unitarian Universalist Association", it reads: "Representing over 1,000 liberal congregations in North America".

Be sure to also note the helpful .pdf files, including the "Same Sex Wedding Planning Guide". The UUA is not a church, it's the un-church. In more ways that one - these are the people who display the U.N. flag in the places where they congregate (I just can't use the word "worship" - it would not be accurate).

39 posted on 05/19/2004 10:06:52 AM PDT by Charles Martel ("Who put the Tribbles in the Quadrotriticale?")
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To: RonF
If I recall correctly, Unitarians were once a Christian denomination that believed in God and Jesus but believed them to be simply different aspects of a single Godhead, instead of a Triune God. How they got hooked up with the Universalists is unknown to me.

You are correct. Unitarianism began in Transylvania and has been around for centuries. Universalism began in the U.S. about 200 years ago. The merge didn't occur until 1961. Universalists believe that all will be saved. You put the two together and it doesn't seem surprising that what would come out would be what Unitarian Universalism is today - a church that defies the traditional definitions of what church is.
40 posted on 05/19/2004 10:41:13 AM PDT by Egregious Philbin
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To: Egregious Philbin

Hmmm, I wonder if the Texans will apply this to the Religion of Peace® a/k/a Mohammedism.


41 posted on 05/19/2004 10:46:22 AM PDT by MIchaelTArchangel
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To: Egregious Philbin

Oh this going to get real interesting....and real ugly


42 posted on 05/19/2004 1:07:12 PM PDT by jnarcus
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To: Protagoras

No, they were Congregationalists.


43 posted on 05/19/2004 8:40:33 PM PDT by rmlew (Peaceniks and isolationists are objectively pro-Terrorist)
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To: rmlew
No, they were Congregationalists.

Huh? So they wouldn't have cared that the "new" church doesn't believe?

44 posted on 05/20/2004 6:42:00 AM PDT by Protagoras (Control is the objective , freedom is the obstacle.)
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To: Egregious Philbin

I was just reading something and remembered this post. I didn't have time to study it then, and don't now, but thought you might find the following interesting. I was speed-reading through it [i.e., meaning I have to come back later when I have more time to get the full gist of it all], and have sped through a couple of the links to where I am now reading that the Supreme Court has declared Secular Humanism a religion, and also learned that when you take an oath that ends with 'So help me God', that you are publicly professing that you are not a Christian. Scroll down the page to read about the early beliefs of the Unitarians vs. the later. The website is hosted by a man who couldn't become an attorney because he refused to take such an oath that would put him in conflict with his faith.

An article entitled 'Were the founding fathers Deists....'
http://members.aol.com/TestOath/deism.htm


I'd flag some of the others on this thread, but my windows are maxed out, and I'm typing over the thread. Sorry!


45 posted on 05/24/2004 12:26:37 PM PDT by Ethan_Allen (Gen. 32:24-32 'man'=Jesus http://www.preteristarchive.com/Jesus_is_Israel/index.html)
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To: Protagoras

fyi


46 posted on 05/24/2004 12:31:53 PM PDT by Ethan_Allen (Gen. 32:24-32 'man'=Jesus http://www.preteristarchive.com/Jesus_is_Israel/index.html)
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To: Egregious Philbin
Its reasoning: The organization "does not have one system of belief."

The US Supreme Court will have a lot of fun with this one.

It reminds of the state unemployment agency that denied benefits to a Jehovah's Witness fired after refusing work in a munition factory, even though other Jehovah's Witnesses worked there.

The state unemployment agency said that it was a personal matter, not a religious matter, because Jehovah's Witnesses did not have a prohibition against working at munition factories.

The US Supreme Court overruled the state unemployment agency, saying that the individual conscience is supreme, and individual church members are free to pick and choose their own beliefs.

47 posted on 05/24/2004 12:39:24 PM PDT by daivid
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To: Ethan_Allen

Update: Secular Humanism is a religion for free exercise clause purposes and not a religion for establishment clause purposes. Weird double standard which allows humanism [evolution, state as god, homosexuality and gay marriage is great, etc.] in school. Distribution of candy canes with Bible verses in school not good.


48 posted on 05/24/2004 12:47:12 PM PDT by Ethan_Allen (Gen. 32:24-32 'man'=Jesus http://www.preteristarchive.com/Jesus_is_Israel/index.html)
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