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Background Information

In Texas, it was standard for religious organizations to receive a variety of automatic tax exemptions. In 1996, the Ethical Society of Austin (ESA) applied for such a religious tax exemption and was initially approved. Shortly thereafter, however, the Comptroller revoked their exemption on the grounds that the organization does not require members to worship a Supreme Being - therefore, the ESA could not qualify as "religious" in nature:

...although the activities of the organization are very similar to those of an entity that might qualify for exemption under the religious category, the Ethical Culture is a humanistic movement instilling the belief in its members that the supreme end of human life is to create a more humane society and a better world. And while the Ethical Culture does not deny the existence of a supreme being, the beliefs and teachings of the movement do not include worship of a supreme being.

In 1998, the ESA filed suit against the Comptroller's Office after it upheld the earlier denial of tax exempt status for the organization. According to the ESA, the Comptroller's decision was a violation of Texas law and the First Amendment.

Court Decision

Judge Paul Davis of the Travis County District Court ruled on December 18, 2001, that the ESA deserved tax exempt status under the Texas Tax Code.

In his six-page decision, Davis noted first that the EAS acts very much like a traditional religion in a number of ways and that other Ethical Societies have been granted religious tax exemptions in other states.

Davis also noted that Texas law does not provide much guidance when it comes to defining religion, which is not surprising because even religious scholars do not agree on one single definition:

It is agreed that there is a line; it is not clear as to where to draw the line, or which organizations fall within the line and which organizations fall outside the line.

A primary basis of his decision seems to have been not simply that other states have accorded Ethical Culture societies similar tax exempt status, but the fact that religion has broader connotations than simply "worship of a Supreme Being."

...a review of case law suggests that while some courts include worship of a Supreme Being as an element of "religion," it is not a dispositive factor, and courts have expressly rejected the contention that it is the linchpin factor. ...If we rule otherwise, universally recognized world belief systems such as Buddhism and Taoism, which do not subscribe to a theistic world-view, would not be consisdered religions.

State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander has promised to appeal the decision, claiming that it could result in "dire consequences" for Texas if allowed to stand:

Anyone who dresses up and parades down Sixth Street on Halloween will be applying for an exemption.


A variety of religious groups were furious that the ESA had applied for a religious tax exemption and are furious that they have won it. It is curious that this should be so when, at the same time, conservative and fundamentalist religious groups also spend time arguing that humanism and/or atheism are "really" religions. It is possible for the ESA to be a religious group without humanism or atheism being religions, but if humanism is a religion, then any group which promotes humanism is surely religious - and that would include Ethical Culture groups like the ESA (even though Ethical Culture is not the same as humanism).

The court very specifically address the question of how to define what a "religion" is, and while the discussion is informative, it is not surprising that it was very circumspect. Davis correctly noted that restricting the definition of religion to those religious forms which are most common and traditional in the West would be invalid. However, Davis did not address the more fundamental question of whether or not the government should or could ever decide what qualifies as a "religion" and what does not.

Any time the government declares that "these groups are religions" but "these other groups are not religions" and then proceeds to give the former special privileges not accorded to anyone else, there exists are very strong risk of religious discrimination. Such decisions will invariably be heavily informed by traditional assumptions and beliefs - exactly the sort of thing which inclines so many to think that religion requires theism. If this requirement must not be shared in order to be a religion, what other requirements may also be eliminated? It seems clear that when government power is used to define for others what a religion must be and must not be, a possible violation of the First Amendment may be occurring. If such a violation can be avoided, how would that be done?

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