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Supreme Court rules for Ethical Society to get religious tax exemption

American Statesman, USA
Apr. 24, 2004
David Pasztor • Monday April 26, 2004

Strayhorn argues that the group doesn’t qualify because it doesn’t worship a higher power.

The state comptroller’s office, pinch hitting for divine beings, is now zero for three in Texas courts but wants one more trip to the plate.

The state Supreme Court on Friday rejected Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s argument that the Ethical Society of Austin doesn’t qualify for religious tax exemptions because its members do not worship a specific God or higher power.

The group, with about 60 members, defines its faith through pursuit of ethical ideals and humane behavior rather than worshipping a deity. Its roots reach back to the Ethical Culture movement that began in 1876.

Although the society meets weekly, performs ceremonies such as weddings and baby namings and holds Sunday school classes, it does not meet the comptroller’s requirement of worshipping “God, gods or a higher power.”

The state has been trying for almost eight years to deny the society religious status that would exempt it from paying sales taxes, property taxes and other state levies.

A state district judge and the 3rd Court of Appeals have already upheld the group’s religious status. Without comment, the high court on Friday declined to hear Strayhorn’s appeal of the 2003 decision by the 3rd Court of Appeals.

Strayhorn vowed to appeal to a higher authority.

“I will not give up this fight,” she said in a written statement. “I have directed my General Counsel to immediately appeal this decision to the United States Supreme Court.”

State lawyers have argued that recognizing the ethical group as a religion will open the door for tax scams.

A variety of Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite and Unitarian groups have sided with the society, fearful that Strayhorn’s position threatens religious freedom.

Lauren Sloan, a former society president, characterized Strayhorn’s persistence as “morally irresponsible.”

“I think it’s sad that she has taken this path, a divisive path,” Sloan said. “One could take it as political grandstanding or as ignorance of religions different from one’s own. I do not believe it’s ignorance.”

Strayhorn’s office declined to comment beyond her written statement decrying the court decision.

The society owns no property and has few assets, so the amount of tax revenue at stake is minimal, said David Weiser, the group’s lawyer.

Strayhorn’s appeals have almost certainly cost more than the $100 or so in sales taxes that the society continues to pay each year while the case is on appeal, Weiser said.

But the small congregation considers the principle worth fighting for, he said.

“With great respect, I would encourage the comptroller and the attorney general to reconsider the position they are taking in this case,” Weiser said.

“I think they will find that an organization such as this is precisely the type of bona fide religious organization that Texas has always decided to exempt.”

The case is Carole Keeton Strayhorn v. Ethical Society of Austin, 03-0479.

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