Sin Buddhism

Comptroller Nixes Tax Exemption for "Non-Believers"

David Collins guides other Zen Buddhists.

photograph by Crawford Morgan

David Collins, 39, moved to Austin three and a half years ago with the idea of forming a Zen Buddhist church. Having completed two master's degrees in religious studies and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and having been formally recognized by a religious association, Collins believed he was prepared to become a teacher and guide to other worshippers. He gave his organization a name, attracted a small congregation through public notices, and began holding weekly services. But when Collins went to the bank to set up a commercial checking account, he discovered that Texas defines religion much differently than he does. "I didn't think I needed recognition from anybody to practice my religion," says Collins. "It turns out my bank wants articles of incorporation, and the Comptroller's office says `prove that you're a religion.' But my style doesn't include the various external trappings that commonly go with churches in our society... I understand that the law is for organizations which practice religious worship -- and that's all we do, that's all we're interested in, so we don't need those trappings."

The Comptroller's office disagreed, and refused to grant Collins' group tax exempt status as a non-profit religious organization, stating that Collins lacked a statement of faith, a formal congregation, and that his followers seemed to be "worshipping themselves." Collins was aghast. In his mind, the state had essentially declared that Zen Buddhism, one of the world's oldest forms of worship, and one which he had personally practiced for 20 years, was not a religion.

Since that original rebuff in 1995, Collins has unsuccessfully appealed the agency's decision three times, and last week presented his case at a hearing on which Comptroller John Sharp will ultimately rule. For Collins, the appeals have become his protest against the state's definition of religious practice, and he says he will go to court seeking his First Amendment rights if he has to.

Thou Shalt Worship a Supreme Being

Arguably, the Comptroller's office was less concerned, at least originally, with Collins' Buddhism than with the nature of his organization, the Community for Contemplative Practice (CCP). The office has maintained that CCP is properly classified as an informal meditation group because it lacks certain "forms" -- a membership roster, initiation rituals, or an altar, for example -- essential to any church. Buddhism traditionally employs rites and symbols, such as shaving one's head and wearing robes, but Collins says the use of such rituals makes the religion less accessible to Westerners and distracts from the "utter simplicity" of Buddhist practice.

Recently, however, the Comptroller's office has demonstrated a bias against non-theistic religions which runs deeper than quibbles over organization. In June, Comptroller John Sharp invoked what the ACLU has reported is an "unwritten" policy, a requirement that a group profess belief in a "Supreme Being," to deny religious status to the atheist group Ethical Culture Fellowship, even after his staff had approved it. A few days later, Collins received a new position paper from the agency pointing out that Webster's dictionary defines religion as "the service and worship of God or the supernatural," a notation it had never included before.

At best, the Comptroller's office occupies an awkward position, situated as it is at one of those contentious junctures between church and state where the public's interest must be policed without impeding the exercise of First Amendment rights. Even so, UT constitutional law professor Douglas Laycock says, "The state can't be telling religious groups how they ought to organize... that's none of their business," adding that Jesus himself would not have passed such criteria.

But now that Sharp has made his pronouncement against groups which profess no belief in a "Supreme Being," the agency has not only snubbed Eastern religious traditions that are centuries old, but misaligned itself with prevailing currents running through mainstream Western churches as well. In fact, say religious scholars, the Comptroller's position falls into a tradition of cultural attitudes that have historically sought to squelch the essence of religion by forcing creedal dogma onto practices that are fundamentally based on individual discovery and revelation.

"Experience, not creeds, is at the heart of religion," says Presbyterian minister and author Jim Rigby. "Mainstream denominations have developed around these creedal statements and they're completely unaware that they are defining themselves in opposition to other people. In truth, when we have these creeds, we're not worshipping God, we're worshipping ourselves."

Collins says that Zen Buddhism does not talk about "God" very much because the object of Zen worship is to break apart one's preconceptions of the divine and build wisdom through meditative reflection rather than theological propositions. Zen also proposes that "there is nowhere that God isn't," meaning that the miracle of the divine is here to experienced. "It's exploring what it is to be alive," Collins says, "not looking to have someone else give you all the answers."

IRS Says "A-OK"

The straightforward Zen approach is evidenced in the CCP's worship services on Thursday evenings, which a passerby outside the Friends Meeting House would probably not even notice was taking place. Like the Quakers who built the Meeting House, the CCP congregation spends much time in silence; the only noises in the house are from the evening buzz of cicadas outside and the whir of ceiling fans. After meditation has ended, Collins squats on a pillow and, with prepared texts before him, gives a sermon on ancient Buddhist writings, often full of paradoxes and riddles designed to shake up and challenge worshippers' conceptions of the reality inside and around them. Collins believes these services, while unconventional to many, are a more serious and committed religious practice that what is often found in today's existing churches.

Ironically, however, the process of individual revelation lies at the core of mainstream Western religions as well. The Protestant Reformation, for example, which led to the formation of churches such as the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist denominations, was led by dissidents whose personal religious experiences were not recognized by the Catholic Church. Today, established denominations such as the Unitarians welcome non-believers into their ranks, and divinity schools employ faculty who profess no belief in God. Churches have acknowledged that the search for spiritual growth and understanding may not lead everyone to believe in the Judeo-Christian "God."

In Austin, an organization called the Seton Cove Spirituality Center, which is open to followers of all religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, teaches "spiritual direction" in the form of prayer and meditation, but subscribes to no particular concept of a "Supreme Being." Asked how Seton Cove gained status as a tax-exempt religious organization, Associate Director Hannah O'Donoghue replied, "Oh, we're listed in the directory of organizations approved by the Catholic Diocese."

O'Donoghue says that people who may not be able to accept the existence of God nonetheless want to share a sense of hope and support through a community of worship. "They can grow in a spiritual journey without necessarily being connected to a belief system," says O'Donoghue. "People are saying that they don't need intellectual accounts of God, they need teaching and instruction on how to grow," she says, adding that it is "comical" to think the law could ever possibly define spiritual experience.

Finally, even the Internal Revenue Service does not care what type of theology a religion espouses. It grants tax-exempt status to any organization which declares a "sincere" devotion to a form of worship or creed, pursues that devotion "religiously," and behaves in a manner consistent with its premises. It also asks for articles of incorporation, funding sources, and a constitution of by-laws. Rechy Davidson, senior exemption organizations reviewer for the IRS, says it is a "rare occurrence" when an applicant is turned down.

Nhiew Ong, of the Linh-Son Buddhist Association in Austin, confirms that it was easy for his organization, which at the time met in a small duplex and had only a handful of members, to get an exemption through the IRS. When Collins' case was described to him, he was surprised that the state had been so strict with CCP. "I don't think there's a reason for him to be denied," says Ong.

Actually, Collins could register the CCP for a 501 c3 exemption through the IRS and force the Comptroller's office to acknowledge CCP as a not-for-profit religious organization. But the application costs $500, and Collins says he refuses to pay for the right to practice religion in this state. "I refuse, as a point of honor and respect for Buddhism, to go along with a pronouncement of official denial -- that CCP is not a religion, that it's less than what it is," says Collins.

Because Collins has decided to forego the IRS exemption, it is illegal for him to receive donations for CCP or charge members for individual counseling, owing to the state's 1993 Licensed Professional Counselor's Act. This legislation requires any person who facilitates "mental, emotional, physical, social, moral, educational, and spiritual... development," to either be licensed or a member of the clergy. As long as CCP is not classified as a religious group, Collins' practice is considered counseling by the state and therefore subject to licensure.

Collins says it would be impossible for CCP to exist without financial support, and that his counseling, which he considers an integral part of spiritual guidance, could not continue without the fees he collects. He demands the right to operate like any other church.

"I have worked tremendously hard for two decades to educate myself to be equipped to promote what I find the most beautiful thing in all of life," he says, "and now for them not to accord me recognition as a religious organization... it's just not right, on the one hand, and it's also un-Constitutional."

Church Faces State in Court

Three religious scholars from the Austin area testified in Collins' behalf at the July 30 hearing. (Ethical Culture atheists presented their appeal of Sharp's ruling at the same hearing.) Edward Shirley, a professor of religion and practicing Catholic, compared contemplative practice to "centering" prayer used by Christians. But Rigby, the Presbyterian minister, noted that the Comptroller's office and Collins are speaking "two different languages" to describe religious practice. The agency is simply not prepared to recognize the Buddhist quest for "unknowing," or Collins' non-pedagogical approach, in a society dominated by institutionalized religion, he said. Collins, speaking as his own defense counsel, zinged the agency for conducting an "official" hearing in an "informal" style, but refusing to allow him to practice religion similarly.

It will likely take months for the Comptroller to render a final decision in both the Buddhists' and the atheists' cases, which will either conform the state's policies with federal and Supreme Court guidelines or establish Texas as a strictly "Christian" state. In truth, the Comptroller's policies have little effect on new religious organizations in Texas, who can easily circumvent the office, albeit at a fee, through the IRS. Alternative religions, including many Buddhist groups, have existed in Texas for years under cover of the IRS. But the Comptroller's "Supreme Being" ideology does represent an attitude which tends to lead down unfortunate paths -- toward intolerance, exclusion, and the use of religious hegemony for political ends.

"When you say somebody who believes in God is better than somebody who doesn't, and that all morality is pinned around this belief, of God as a noun as opposed to a verb, then you wind up with Pat Robertson," says Rigby. "If there's one right way to look at things, then the best that we can do for the world is to take over and force everybody to follow along."

(The Comptroller's office said it could not comment for this story because Collins' case is still pending.)

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