In a free country, who gets to decide what religion is?
Issues of church and state can be difficult. Even people of tolerance and goodwill often disagree over the application of the First Amendment’s religion clauses in this or that context, while people who are totally invested in particular religious doctrines routinely try to rewrite constitutional history in the fond belief that doing so will allow them to “correct” the religious views of others. These disputes “go with the territory” of constitutional government in a country with a religiously diverse citizenry.
Every once in a while, however, we get a church-state conflict that seems truly bizarre. (It is interesting how frequently such cases arise in the Great State of Texas—but I digress.)
On May 18th, the Texas State Comptroller ruled that the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church was not a “religious organization” for tax purposes. The Comptroller based her denial of tax exempt status on the fact that “the church does not have one system of belief” and does not require belief in a deity.
The fact that Unitarianism isn’t a “real” religion might have come as something of a shock to several of the nation’s Unitarian founders, and to Unitarian Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
Since Carole Strayhorn, the current Comptroller, assumed office in 1999, the religious exemption has been denied to 17 groups, including Wiccans and the Ethical Culture Fellowship of Austin, while more than 1000 others, including the Church of Scientology, have been granted tax-exempt status. (While it is unclear whether any have applied, the Comptroller’s definition of “real religion” would disqualify Buddhist Temples as well.)
The public outcry over the Unitarian denial led to a quick reversal of that decision, but Strayhorn remained adamant about Ethical Culture, which then brought suit, alleging religious discrimination. Ethical Culture describes itself as a religious, philosophical, and educational movement focused upon how people live rather than on what they believe. Defying the trial court and Texas Supreme Court, which both ruled against her, Strayhorn has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that if Ethical Culture wins, “any wannabe cult who dresses up and parades down Sixth Street on Halloween” will apply for a tax exemption.
In a free country, who gets to decide what “religion” is? While the Texas case makes a tempting target for late-night humorists, the question is a real one. The late comedian Flip Wilson had a recurring skit about a “Church of What’s Happening Now.” We probably wouldn’t want that church getting favored tax treatment. Recently, “The Holy Land Experience,” a real-life, religiously-oriented Florida theme park charging a $35 admission fee, was ruled tax-exempt.
Are these decisions really evenhanded, or do government officials privilege beliefs with which they are familiar? Have churches and synagogues agreed to a de facto “religious establishment” in return for favorable tax treatment?
The Ethical Society’s website defines its mission as a “look beyond the differences between religions to embrace the common core of ethics at the heart of all worldwide faiths.” Is that really less authentically “religious” than riding the Jesus roller-coaster?