Texas Unitarian Church Gets Tax Exemption, State Officials Decide

Officials with the Texas Comptroller's Office have reversed themselves and decided that a Unitarian-Universalist church in Denison qualifies for a tax exemption after all.

Leaders of the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church were stunned in May when Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn informed the church that it did not qualify for tax-exempt status. Strayhorn said the group fell short because it "does not have one system of belief."

Texas officials have apparently taken it upon themselves to decide what constitutes proper religious worship.

"In this case, we didn't think they met the test of religious worship," Jesse Ancira, general counsel for the comptroller's office, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We know they have a common belief in moral and ethical principles, but there is no one statement of faith. It's a free and open belief in several religions, including those that believe in a higher power."

Ancira said a group cannot consider itself a church unless it has "a belief in God or gods or a higher power."

Unitarianism has had a presence in the United States since the founding period. At least four U.S. presidents were members of the faith. Thomas Jefferson, although he never formally joined the church, once predicted that Unitarianism would become "the general religion of the United States."

Jefferson's prediction turned out to be rather optimistic. Today the Unitarian-Universalist Association is a well-established faith in America with approximately a quarter of a million members and churches and fellowships nationwide.

Attorneys with Americans United contacted the Red River Church to offer legal assistance, but it turned out that they were not needed. Public outcry over the state's decision was immediate, and officials quickly reversed themselves. Ancira promptly informed the church that it is an "organization created for religious purposes" and thus eligible for tax exemption.

But other groups say they are still having problems in Texas. Former Texas Comptroller John Sharp denied tax exemption to the Ethical Culture Fellowship of Austin, a stand Strayhorn backed. The group eventually won a reversal of Sharp\'s decision from the Texas Supreme Court, but Strayhorn has vowed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Star-Telegram reported that Strayhorn has also denied tax-exempt status to New Age, atheist and Wiccan groups.