Texas officials have agreed to extend tax-exempt status to a non-theistic church.
In mid May, the Texas Office of the Comptroller sent a letter to Americans United for Separation of Church and State announcing it had granted tax-exempt status to the Church of Freethought, a Dallas-area congregation.
Americans United intervened on behalf of the congregation after the state tax agency had initially denied its request for tax exemption.
In a press statement praising the Texas agency’s reversal, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said, “This is a victory for religious freedom. Government must never play favorites when it comes to religion.”
The Church of Freethought enjoys federal tax-exempt status, but was unable to obtain similar status in Texas. The tax agency had insisted that the church “appears to be a discussion or social group rather than a religious organization.”
Texas officials have expressed hostility toward non-theistic religious groups. In a past dispute, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn said giving tax exemptions to such groups would lead to applications from “any wannabe cult who dresses up and parades down Sixth Street on Halloween.”
But the Comptroller’s office finally conceded that Americans United’s legal stance was correct. In a 2003 Texas Court of Appeals decision in Strayhorn v. Ethical Society of Austin, the state court ruled that the comptroller violated the First Amendment rights of the Ethical Society of Austin when it rejected the group’s application for tax-exempt status.