It would seem that the Texas comptroller has a definition of "belief in God". Unitarians need not apply.
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 [...] 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."
So apparently, a group that has been considered a religious faith/creed in this country for nigh on 200 years is suddenly insufficiently godly to qualify for Texas' tax breaks. How very odd.
It does bring up an interesting issue, however. If the state continues to give tax breaks of various types to religions, how is it to determine what qualifies? In theory, I could throw open my house to people -- the one consistent requirement does seem to be that it be open to the public, which is even objectively reasonable -- declare myself to be a minister (accredited by myself, of course), get a follower or two, and declare myself to be a tax-exempt religion. It's not that simple, of course, either at the state or federal levels. That said, surely an organization that's been recognized as a religion by pretty much every government in the country for nearly 200 years would be worthy of recognition in Texas. Surely the Texas comptroller is not going to revisit every past decision regarding the Unitarian churches in that state -- as fairness would seem to require at this point -- and strip them all of tax-exempt status.
The Texas comptroller's office seems to have backed itself into an interesting legal corner.Posted by iain at May 18, 2004 10:10 PM