Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the Texas state comptroller, has become the new champion of American believers. Her office is charged with determining what groups qualify for exemption from state taxation (including sales taxes, property taxes, and other state levies) as religious organizations. My ancient Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “religious” as “Imbued with religion, pious, god-fearing, devout . . . ,” and this definition appears to be similar to Mrs. Strayhorn’s. Still, she has taken the position that no exemption will be granted unless the group applying can demonstrate a belief in “God, gods or a higher power.” This appears to go a bit further than our frequently labeled Judeo-Christian tradition and would certainly include classical Greeks, Romans, and Norsemen, but, nevertheless, Mrs. Strayhorn has recently found herself embroiled in controversy and litigation.
Her office sought to deny an exemption to the Ethical Society of Austin because the society, instead of believing in “God, gods or a higher power,” according to an account in the Austin American-Statesman, “defines its faith through pursuit of ethical ideals and humane behavior rather than worshipping a deity.” Unfortunately, a Texas trial court, an appellate court, and the Texas Supreme Court have all refused to uphold Strayhorn’s denial of an exemption. Marvelously undeterred by the fact that the litigation has cost the citizens of Texas many times more than the paltry tax the Ethical Society would have paid, Strayhorn has vowed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. One can be fairly certain, however, since the three levels of the Texas judiciary have been unanimous, and since the federal courts defer to state courts in matters of interpretation of state law, that there is no chance the Court will agree even to hear the appeal, let alone reverse the Texas courts.
Yet Strayhorn remains gloriously unrepentant. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, her office has issued a press release stating that she would continue her policies and her efforts to deny exemptions to the Godless, because “[o]therwise, any wannabe cult who dresses up and parades down Sixth Street on Halloween will be applying for an exemption.”
Before the U.S. Supreme Court could act, Strayhorn’s office attracted national notice by denying a state tax exemption to the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church. The Unitarian-Universalists have congregations throughout the nation, go back a couple of centuries, and, in an earlier incarnation, counted among their members both Presidents Adams (although, at that time, the church still believed in some sort of deity and would have qualified under Strayhorn’s rules). They have since become much more ecumenical. According to one Dan Althoff, board president for the Denison, Texas, congregation whose application for tax exemption was rejected, his organization includes “hard-core atheists” as well as “New Agey-type people.” Other groups rejected by Strayhorn’s office for failure to adhere to a single set of beliefs in “God, gods, or a higher power” include, according to the Fort Worth paper, “a Carrollton, Texas, group of atheists and agnostics, a New Age group in Bastrop, Texas, and the Whispering Star Clan/Temple of Ancient Wisdom, an organization of witches in Copperas Cove, Texas.” One of the Texas judges reversing Strayhorn in the Ethical Society case remarked that her standard “fails to include the whole range of belief systems that may, in our diverse and pluralistic society, merit the First Amendment protection.”
Instead, then, of deferring to the officials of the Texas government, the Texas courts are borrowing from the broader conceptions of the federal courts, which have, while barring Bible reading and prayer from public schools, often sought to define religion in a manner that goes far beyond that contemplated by the Framers. Perhaps Strayhorn and her office are on what now amounts to a quixotic quest to restore some sense and tradition to the term religion. Their chances of success are not good, however, and, as we go to press, Strayhorn’s office, probably because of adverse publicity and pressure, has decided to reverse itself and grant the Denison Unitarian-Universalists their exemption. We await further word on the witches and ethical culturists.