Texas: Unitarian Universalism isn’t a Religion

It seems that the state of Texas (or at least its comptroller) think that a religion is not really a religion if it “does not have one system of belief.” Therefore, we Unitarian Universalists are not really a religion, and we should be taxed liked any other entity in Texas.

Oh really? This is news to the hundreds of thousands of us who are UUs in America. I imagine presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Unitarians of their age, are rolling in their graves.

Here’s what the UUs believe: each person has the right to decide for himself or herself what they believe. We don’t claim to have the answers. We don’t feel people need to be coerced or persuaded. We are one of a very few number of religions that does not require the profession of a creed as a condition of membership. We celebrate all religions and think there is some meaning and value in all of them. But above all we believe in the individual right of conscience. We welcome all. You can believe in God or not. You can believe in multiple gods. You can be agnostic or pantheistic. A lot of UUs are multireligious. For example we have wiccans in our church who practice regularly in a sacred circle they created out in the woods on our church property. They also attend services. We usually celebrate Christmas, and not just because our roots are in Christianity. We also celebrate major Jewish, Hindu and Muslim holidays. We have been known to do Buddhist meditations from time to time too.

I taught a “Neighboring Faiths” religious education program at my church one year. We taught emerging teens about the various faiths in the world. But we did more than just study them. We sought them out. The places of religious worship we visited included a Jewish temple and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Catholic) here in Washington. We attended a predominantly African American Pentecostal Church. (It was an amazing experience to witness a service of continuous, almost rapturous song and heartfelt emotion.) And we watched a Mormon church service. We even had frank discussions with their children in religious education after the service. We are not a xenophobic religion. Ours is a religion of free association. We realize that not all people are comfortable with our approach, but it is our approach. It’s what we’ve been doing for as long as we’ve been Unitarians and Universalists.

Each UU church arranges their services as they like. But most Christians would feel at home in a UU church. At our church we sing songs from hymnals. We sometimes even sing about God in our hymns. (Sometimes we may sing about the Goddess.) We have sermons. We light a flaming chalice at the start of each service, symbolizing our belief in independent thought. We even pass around the collection plate.

Newsflash to Texas: there is a lot more to religion than having one system of beliefs. You would think the Texas comptroller would at least bother to look up the definition of the word “religion” in the dictionary before painting with so broad a brush. There are other definitions for religion including “A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.” UUs have no institutionalized system of beliefs. Another definition includes “A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” We don’t specify beliefs, but we do have values we espouse in our Principles and Purposes. We don’t have a founding father or mother figure but we do have some people of whom we are very proud. In addition to ex presidents we can include Charles Darwin (who articulated the theory of evolution) and Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross) among distinguished Unitarian Universalists.

The good news for UUs is that at the moment the courts are on our side. The bad news is that for some bizarre reason (probably because in Texas, as is so often the case, the normal rules of thought don’t seem to apply) the current Texas comptroller is refusing to give up.

Oh what an odious message it will send if Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ultimately succeeds. She likely won’t if it ever reaches our U.S. Supreme Court. But if she succeeds it would render our freedom of religion pretty meaningless in this country.

If ignorance is not a sin, it should be.

Update 5/25/04. Strayhorn seems to have surrendered.

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