A person would be hard put to find more ministers per square mile than reside in the town of Hardenburgh. In fact, one would be hard put to find the town of Hardenburgh at all. It is a blacktop crossroads or two in a rugged section of the Catskill mountains with no post office, no main street, no listing in the phone book and no town hall. It does have a few sagging farmhouses, a few mobile homes and a population of 236. Of these, 200 -- men, women, and children -- are of the cloth.

How they all come to get religion can only be called inspirational. It had to do with the time, back in 1976, when several groups, the Zen Buddhists, Hindus, Boy Scouts, were buying large tracts of land, living tax free and leaving the residents of Hardenburgh to take up the land. Taxes quadrupled and quintupled. In a town where many lived on the minimum wage or Social Security, retired farmers suddenly faced property taxes of $4,000 a year.

Then -- Hallelujah -- somebody got the word: a mail-order ministry, operating out of California, called the Universal Life Church. Become a minister, under New York law, and you are tax exempt. First a dozen, then two dozen, then almost everybody in town got signed up, from a mail-order cardinal in a nearby town who ordained them all.

Tax dodge?

"Salvation," is the word the cardinal prefers.

The town of Hardenburgh, which spans a mountainous area of 85 square miles in Ulster County, has been embroiled in a tax war with the state for five years now, winning some battles, losing some. Its wins -- in 1977 and 1978 -- made the mail-order ministers exempt from property tax for two years and prompted the town supervisor, a fesity fellow named Lester Bourke, to put up the peeling metal sign at the town line: "Welcome to the Town of Hardenburgh -- Tax Exemption Granted." (The neighboring town of Rockland, countenancing no such nonsense, immediately put up its own sign across the road: "Town of Rockland: Zoning Enforce.")

But in the past two years, Hardenburgh, a town of farmers and laborers in an economically depressed area, has been losing its fight. In 1979, the state legislature, seeing trouble not only in one town, but also throughout the area, amended the state's real property tax, allowing exemptions only to property used "exclusively" for church purposes, or held in trust by the minister assigned to the church. Hardenburgh, which has been spending one third of its $220,000 budget on legal fees in the past few years, took the amendment to court. Early this month, in the New York State Court of Appeals, Hardenburgh lost.

Now, led by an attorney who divides his time between the mountains and New York City, the town has announced it is taking its fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The First Amendment does not permit this type of change in status regarding religion," attorney Stephen Oppenheim says.

It should also be mentioned that when he mentions the religion of his mail-order ministers, a wide smile breaks over his face, a reaction often seen in Hardenburgh.

He will also admit, after an hour of conversation, that no, he really doesn't believe any organization should be tax exempt, though he prefers to express that feeling, like the residents of Hardenburgh, in roundabout fashion.

"We think the state of New York has to treat all religions equally," he says solemnly. "If exemptions are given, they must be given to all; if they don't exempt anyone, that's fine, too. We just want evenhanded treatment."

A similar reply comes from the man who may have started the tax fight in the area, George McClain. A plumber in the nearby city of Liberty, McClain became a minister in the Universal Life Church after seeing an article in Popular Mechanics. Now the only ULC cardinal in the state, he claims to have ordained 10,000 ministers including most of the town of Hardenburgh.

What was the attraction?

"I'll give the same answer I gave nationwide television," says McCain. "They were looking for a form of salvation and they felt they'd seen the light."

In other words?

"The government is rippin' the people off."

The ringleader of the Hardenburgh rebellion is Supervisor Bourke, a former New York City fireman, who became a minister in the Universal Life Church after the taxes on his 192-acre farm jumped from $745 in 1971 to $4,103 five years later.

Like most of the citizens of Hardenburgh -- except for the wealthy few who own large retreats -- Bourke cannot afford his property taxes. His farm, of which only 16 acres are flat, is used primarily for raising 40 or 50 sheep; other income comes from firefighter's disability, and a patent. Bourke is a backroads inventor, a putterer. There's a solar collector on the roof of his farmhouse, a pond beside the house for hydroelectric power, and his 11 cats spend the winters in an electrically heated shelter.

"My tax accessor put it down as cathouse, just to confuse 'em," says Bourke.

Bourke is, in the hierarchy of the Universal Life Church, a bishop, like his good friend Fred Haas from the neighboring town of Livingston Manor, and Bob Barnhardt, a former farmer from across the road.

There is reason for this: in the fight with the state, the locals had decided it would be provident that there be a Jewish, Protestant and Catholic bishop. There are other reasons as well. Haas, who owns a small hotel, has seen his taxes from $5,000 to $15,000 in the past 10 years since tax-exempt groups like the Boy Scouts and Buddhists have moved in. Barnhardt, who had lived in Hardenburgh all his life, saw taxes on his 330-acre farm jump from $390 in 1956 to $5,600 three years ago and he was forced to sell. Bourke maintains that the reason his friend had to sell was that the large tax-exempt property holders in the area were not paying their fair share.

"We have the Boy Scouts who came up from Nassau County," he says. "They have 1,500 acres and a 30-room lodge that's been assessed at $1 million. But they're tax exempt. That's $7,000 off the tax roll. We have the Zen Buddhists -- I hear they sent an architect over to Japan just to study for six months, and they have a gatehouse you'd be happy to live in -- they have 1,300 acres, all tax exempt. All tax exempt, for religious purposes. They say, they need 100 acres for each person to meditate . . . ."

He has no bad feelings for the Buddhists, the supervisor insists. They are nice enough people, he says, who are just, in avoiding property tax, "obeying the law."

But looking at the taxes he's paying on his place, and at an old couple he knows who are living in one room to save on heat and say come December, it's going to be food or taxes, he can't help but wonder about it all.

"Maybe I wouldn't mind so much, if it was helping out, say, our local Boy Scouts," he says. "But what if I had all girls, and at the end of the year, I wanted to contribute to the Girl Scouts -- what if I wanted to contribute to the religion of my choice, and not the Zen Buddhists -- all I'm saying is treat everybody equally -- why should we have to handle more than our share?"

Ethel Woodard, a gray-haired woman, lives with her dog in a trailer in Hardenburgh. The trailer is beside the 14-room farmhouse in which she used to live, surrounded by 343 acres and the barn and the pond. When the taxes on the property got to be $4,500 this year, she had to sell, though she and her husband, who recently died, "weren't crazy about the idea."

They had, though she had never written a letter of protest in her life, both joined the Universal Life Church as ministers. Now, her property gone, she still supports the tax fight, though she's not as polite as the town supervisor.

"None of us were trying to get out of anything," she says. "All we wanted was to pay our fair share. . . . I owned property here for 30 years, I got as much rights as some Tibetan monks or those Japs we fought in the war . . . let them pay their taxes too; why should we have to pay for them? They say we're gonna take this to the Supreme Court. . . I'd like to see those people from the Supreme Court sitting right here in our shoes . . . our laws would change awful fast . . ."