Good news, I guess

Texas backs off on Unitarianism, but holds the line against Ethical Culture.

The religious bigots in the Texas Comptroller’s office, having gotten a good horselaugh for their attempt to deny religious status to the Unitarians, have backed off. But don’t relax yet: they’re still fighting through the courts for the right to deny religious status to Ethical Culture.

Maybe there’s a real distinction there, but it looks to me as if they’ve decided that the belief system of a bunch of people who used to be Christians but now aren’t, quite, is a religion, while the belief system of a bunch of people who used to be Jews but now aren’t, quite, isn’t a religion. Maybe the Ethical Culture Society should start calling themselves what my Orthodox rabbi back in Baltimore used to call them: “Jew-nitarians.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (subscription required) has an editorial quite astonishing in its density:

That thump! … whew! you heard was the sound of a dropped ball, followed by a sigh of relief, as the office of state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn recovered from a policy fumble.

The agency has the thankless task of approving tax-exempt status for Texas religious organizations. “We have got to apply a test, and use some objective standards,” said general counsel Jesse Ancira. Part of the test has been that organizations have “a belief in God, or gods, or a higher power.”

That sounds pretty basic. But recently, the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church in Denison didn’t make the cut — it “does not have one system of belief,” according to the comptroller’s office.

After an outcry, Strayhorn announced a reversal of the initial decision. Good on her.

The idea in question remains sound even if it’s difficult to apply. Tax policies require standards.

“The issue as a whole is,” Ancira said, “do you want to open up a system where there can be abuse or fraud, or where any group can proclaim itself to be a religious organization and take advantage of the exception?”

However, Unitarian Universalism has a well-established history. Denison member Dan Althoff noted that Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were Unitarians, which would give the movement a longer pedigree in the United States than … well, Texas itself.

Even though the target initially was missed in this case, it’s right and proper that the comptroller’s office is watching out for the taxpayers’ interests in a rather murky area.

Ummm…so it’s OK with the editorial board of the Star-Telegram for a bunch of Texas bureaucrats to sit around and decide, on doctrinal grounds, what constitutes a religion? Why not follow the lead of the IRS, which has a largely non-doctrinal approach focusing on the structure and conduct of the putatively religious group rather than the content of its beliefs? And the Star-Telegram still doesn’t seem to have a problem with denying the claims of Ethical Culture.

If any Texas politician has expressed concern about either half of this Google doesn’t seem to know about it. This includes, of course, the Texan now posing as Leader of the Free World.

Previous post here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com