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Thursday, May 20, 2004

Texas' taxes.

I'll push pause on the multiple projects that have crowded out all thoughts of blogging this week to put in my two cents on a story a bunch of you have called to my attention: According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the elected state comptroller of Texas, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, has determined that a Unitarian church is not a legitimate religious organization, at least for state tax purposes.

Update 5.21.04: Bob Hill, district executive of the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference, says Strayhorn's policy is "dead in the water." Thanks to Steve Caldwell for the news.

Back to my original post: Several things are off about this story. For one thing, the rule Strayhorn had been applying, which was first adopted by her predecessor and which she had used to turn down applications for tax exemption by 17 groups, was struck down in 2001. Her appeals about that ruling have all failed. Just last month, the state supreme court chose not to review the ruling against Strayhorn. So why try again with the Unitarians?

It's possible that the small Unitarian church went about its application in an unorthodox way, as it were, failing to invoke the Unitarian Universalist Association's recognized status as a religious body of which the congregation is a part. It's possible, in other words, that the congregation unknowingly (or provocatively) applied as a religion in its own right.

It's possible that the paper just got the story wrong. After all, it nowhere says when the Unitarian church's application was turned down. It's also possible that the Unitarians were turned down more recently because the comptroller lives in an alternate universe where the courts don't get to invalidate unconstitutional laws. But the story doesn't say. And my fellow Unitarian Universalists will no doubt be struck by the fact that this story first appeared in the same newspaper that so completely misinterpreted Bill Sinkford's "vocabulary of reverence" sermon deep in the heart of Texas back in January 2003.

More juicily, of course, there are the conspiracy theories: Strayhorn, the much-divorced mother of White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, may want to run for governor and may simply be throwing a bone to right-wing Christians by doing battle with the Wiccans, atheists, and Unitarians in the state — even though she can't actually do them much harm. The tax-exempt status of the state's religious liberals doesn't really seem in doubt, but to conservatives, Strayhorn can still look like a culture warrior.

You're no doubt disappointed that we UU bloggers are coming late to this story. Boy in the Bands plots revenge, but I merely noted the story two days ago in my Scrapbook. Heavy-traffic liberal sites like Electrolite, Atrios, and Political Animal have all hyped the news. But Charles Kuffner at Off the Cuff owns this story, blog-wise. He breaks the story to the blogosphere and then follows up with more.

The story is also bringing previously unknown UU bloggers out of the closet: Meet Thankful for Doorknobs, for example.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 20 May 2004 at 6:11 PM

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May 20, 2004 11:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

I don't know that that's much of a "conspiracy theory." Right-wing politicians are constantly doing unconstitutional things to score points with the Religious Right -- see Roy Moore, or countless attempts to push Creationism.

Mark Brooks:

May 21, 2004 01:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ms. Strayhorn's predecessor, John Sharpe (a Democrat), did something similar with the Ethical Society a few years ago. Often times, the Texas Comptroller's office is a stepping-stone to the Governor's Mansion. At least, the Comptroller has designs on being the Governor. Mr. Sharpe did when he was Comptroller, but George W. was so popular that Mr. Sharpe had to adjust his ambitions and run for Lieutenant Governor. Anyway, he did a lot of self-promotion including pandering to the religious folk here in Texas. His run was unsuccessful.

I believe that's what Ms. Strayhorn is up to as well. I think she's got sights on the Governor's Mansion, and she's using her current office to run for Governor before she actually has to announce her candidacy.

Ike Stephenson:

May 21, 2004 01:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Curious as to how exactly Rev. Sinkford's words were misinterpreted?

I'm, a UU, soon to be VP of congregation, and have a blog although I can't say I focus 100% on faith.


May 21, 2004 01:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ike, the Star-Telegram article about Sinkford's visit to Fort Worth early last year alarmed many UUs because it gave people the misimpression that Sinkford wanted to revise the UUA's Principles to add the word "God" to them. (The New York Times eventually picked up the story because so many people got bent out of shape.) The Star-Telegram printed a correction after Sinkford said he had been misquoted, but the controversy opened up what is now talked about as the "vocabulary of reverence" conversation.

Which reminds me: The UUA has retired a discussion forum on the subject, and has launched a new one. (It uses a different technology.)

Steve Caldwell:

May 21, 2004 02:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

Update from the SW UU Conference Web Site on Texas Tax Issue

The SW UU Conference (aka "SW District") has an update on this issue online.

And here's some words from our district executive on what the courts have said on this in Texas:

"1. Our folks in Denison are not feeling besieged. Dan Althoff, president, wrote me last week that after Red River UUC was invited to submit an amicus curiae brief in support of the Ethical Society of Austin, two attorneys in Austin have been consulting with them about the fact that they have been denied a franchise tax filing exemption by the Comptroller of Public Accounts in Texas. That denial is still in force, but may soon go away. "The Board of Red River UUC voted a resolution of thanks and appreciation to" Jeremy Wright and Rob Wiley of Austin at their April 21st meeting. "We have definitely had some good legal representation, (and) it was entirely donated," Dan said.

2. Since the Texas Court of Appeals, Third District, ruled for the Ethical Culture Fellowship of Austin and against Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and since their ruling was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court, only an appeal to the US Supreme Court remains open to Strayhorn. Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas Law School has said he would be "very surprised if the Supreme Court takes this case." He also said, "For now, the judgment of the Court of Appeals stands," and should our Denison church be forced to file a lawsuit, as the Ethical Society did, he believes "such a lawsuit should be very easy with this precedent in place."

3. Ron Suiter, an attorney and a leader of our Pathways Church in Keller, has read the opinion of the Third District Court of Appeals in the Ethical Society case (which was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court and is, therefore, likely to stand as Texas law) and he says it is "a very well thought-out opinion." That opinion finds, in part, that "the Comptroller's reliance on a Supreme Being litmus test to determine whether an organization qualifies as a religion for purposes of the tax code is constitutionally infirm."

I believe that is legalese for "dead in the water.

-- Bob Hill, District Executive, SWUUC/UUA"

Eric Posa:

May 21, 2004 06:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's possible that the paper just got the story wrong. After all, it nowhere says when the Unitarian church's application was turned down.

A long time ago--I have preached in that church a few times, and I first heard about it over a year ago, maybe as much as two years. Why the Star-Telegram is just now running the story is beyond me.

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