|Unitarian group denied tax status
By R.A. Dyer
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
AUSTIN - 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 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
"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.
His church is just one of several Unitarian
congregations in North Texas, including churches in
Fort Worth, Arlington and Southlake.
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
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
Star-Telegram. Although there are exceptions, the
lion's share of approvals have gone to groups that
appear to have relatively traditional faiths, records
But of the denials, at least a fourth include less
traditional groups, the records show. In addition to
the Denison Unitarian church, the rejected groups
include a Carrollton group of atheists and agnostics,
a New Age group in Bastrop, and the Whispering Star
Clan/Temple of Ancient Wisdom, an organization of
witches in Copperas Cove.
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 and the North Texas
Church of Freethought in Carrollton, as well as an
earlier denial by Sharp for the Ethical Culture
Fellowship of Austin, were ordered because the
organizations did not mandate belief in a supreme
The disputed tax dollars don't amount to much, but the
comptroller has taken a stand on principle, Ancira
"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
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.
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
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
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.
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 the seven years. Althoff said his group
includes "hard-core atheists" as well as "New
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
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
"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
The Rev. Anthony David, lead pastor of Pathways Church
in Southlake, said he is disturbed by the
comptroller's decisions 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
"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 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."
Staff Writer Darren Barbee contributed to this report.