Carole's Lips to God's Ear

The comptroller backs down on threat to de-religion-ize the Unitarians

Carole's Lips to God's Ear
Illustration By Doug Potter

On second thought – or maybe it was on first thought, second reflex – the office of Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has decided that Unitarian Universalism is a religion after all. In a letter sent Tuesday to Dan Althoff, of the board of trustees of the Red River Unitarian Universalist church in Denison, the comptroller's General Counsel Jesse Ancira Jr. said he had determined that the congregation is indeed "an organization created for religious purposes" and thus merits an exemption from certain state taxes.

Last week, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the comptroller's office had denied an exemption to the church – affiliated with one of the most venerable, and indeed legendary, religious denominations in American history – on grounds that the church, in the agency's words, "does not have one system of belief." This week, Althoff credited the Star-Telegram story with creating enough flak that Strayhorn had to direct her staff to "review" the issue, resulting in Ancira's terse reversal.

Earlier, Ancira had told the newspaper's R.A. Dyer that in order to qualify as a religion, a group must stipulate "simply a belief in God, or gods, or a higher power." Unitarians and Universalists (the denominations have existed throughout the U.S. for more than 200 years, but merged in 1961) do not dictate a specific creed for membership and in practice may include a wide range of believers, from progressive Christians to, in Althoff's words, "hardcore atheists." The church boasts as early members Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and as far as church officials know, this is the first time in history that any state has attempted to deny the church's religious tax exemption.

The whole snafu is likely a spin-off of the agency's ongoing legal tiff with the Ethical Society of Austin, which sued the state after Strayhorn's predecessor John Sharp denied it an exemption for lack of belief in a "supreme being." Soundly whipped thus far in Texas courts, Strayhorn has vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary – and might weaken her case if she lets the UU slackers slip through the net of vigilance. According to Strayhorn's office, the comptroller instructed Ancira to review a decision made by staff, but Ancira had previously defended the decision as creating a "level playing field" among religious organizations, and suggesting that all UU congregations might find themselves losing their exemptions. "There's nothing preventing us from doing so," said Ancira.

Apparently, that political Pandora's box has just been closed – at least until the next Festivus.

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Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Jesse Ancira Jr., Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Universal Unitarian

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