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Reynolds v. United States

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Reynolds v. United States (98 U.S. 145)[1] was an 1879 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which it was ruled that a federal statute outlawing bigamy could be enforced against a Mormon polygamist and that the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment did not pose a constitutional barrier to the enforcement of the statute. In the Court's opinion, delivered by then Chief Justice Morrison Waite, a number of fundamental questions concerning the constitutional protections accorded to religion were addressed.

The principal points of the ruling of the Court were that there is a distinction between a person's beliefs and his actions, with the Constitution protecting the former but not the latter and that as stated in the Syllabus:

"A party's religious belief cannot be accepted as a justification for his committing an overt act, made criminal by the law of the land. Where, therefore, the prisoner, knowing that his wife was living, married again in Utah, and, when indicted and tried therefore, set up that the church whereto he belonged enjoined upon its male members to practise polygamy, and that he, with the sanction of the recognized authorities of the church, and by a ceremony performed pursuant to its doctrines, did marry again -- held, that the court properly refused to charge the jury that he was entitled to an acquittal although they should find that he had contracted such second marriage pursuant to, and in conformity with, what he believed at the time to be a religious duty."

Background to the case

In the years prior to the decision, the Mormons had established a prosperous community and settlements in Utah, then a Territory of the United States. In accordance with the teaching of their religion, Church members believed there to be a duty, incumbent on male members of the Church, to practice plural marriage (polygamy), circumstances permitting and that this duty was enjoined not only by the books and writings which they considered holy, but also by direct revelation from God to Church founder Joseph Smith.

This practice offended a great number of people within the United States and an effort was made to eradicate it on the basis of a federal law proscribing bigamy in the Territories.

George Reynolds, a long-time member of the Mormon church and secretary to Brigham Young, the successor to church founder Joseph Smith, offered himself for a test case to be based, inter alia, on objections to enforcement of the statute on grounds that the law violated the Constitutional guarantees protecting the free exercise of religion.

After being tried and convicted, Reynolds appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Opinion of the Court

After disposing of a number of procedural matters connected with the indictment, jury selection, witness testimony, and jury instruction, the Court, in its opinion written by Chief Justice Waite, turned to the substance of the matter. This was the first case brought before the Court under the Free Exercise Clause and thus raised fundamental issues.

Belief / action distinction

In the first instance, it was noted that, although the Constitution protects the "free exercise of religion", nowhere does it define religion. In fact, one of the recurring questions in such free exercise cases, beginning with Reynolds, but continuing down to the present day, is whether the claim is really and truly motivated by religious considerations, or whether it is a secular concern opportunistically masquerading as a religious objection.

In the absence of definition within the Constitution itself, Waite had to look elsewhere for guidance regarding the nature of the religious freedom which is the subject of the Constitutional guarantee, and for this he turned to (in his words) "the history of the times in the midst of which the provision was adopted." That is, he sought an answer in the intent of the framers of the Constitutional provision.

Waite briefly reviewed the history of the amendment regarding freedom of religion and the views of those instrumental in its adoption. He recalled that controversies over these matters occurred in a number of colonies and states culminating in an attempt in 1784 in Virginia to impose a tax in support of the clergy generally. This bill was defeated and, instead, a bill "for establishing religious freedom" and drafted by Thomas Jefferson was passed. Regarding this bill, Waite notes:

"In the preamble of this act (12 Hening's Stat. 84) religious freedom is defined, and, after a recital
that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty,
"it is declared
that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.
"In these two sentences is found the true distinction between what properly belongs to the church and what to the State."

Soon after this, at the first session of the first Congress of the United States following the adoption of the Constitution, the First Amendment to said Constitution was adopted. Jefferson, commenting on the general issue of religious freedom says (as quoted in the opinion of the Court):

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions -- I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."

Commenting on this passage, Waite writes:

"Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order."

Thus, Mr. Waite established what has since become known as the "belief / action" distinction in re the free exercise clause of the first amendment to the Constitution.

Marriage and society

Waite noted the nature of marriage as both a sacred rite and a civil matter involving a range of crucial social relations, obligations, and effects and asserted, on this basis, both the right and obligation of a society to determine regulations related thereto.

Waite discusses the nature of polygamy vis a vis monogomy and the type of society resulting from each, noting that, in the opinion of the Court, a polygamous society tends towards a form of "stationary despotism", as said opinion termed it. In conclusion, the Court held:

". . . there cannot be a doubt that, unless restricted by some form of constitution, it is within the legitimate scope of the power of every civil government to determine whether polygamy or monogamy shall be the law of social life under its dominion."

Thus, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the underlying legislation at issue in the hearing.

Exemptions to the law

The Court finally turned to the question of whether or not a man's religious proclivities could excuse him, in this or any other case, from following the dictates of the law. To be more precise, did the "free exercise of religion" guarantee of the First amendment prohibit the state from enforcing the statute against such an individual? Or, as the Court put it:

". . . the question is raised whether religious belief can be accepted as a justification of an overt act made criminal by the law of the land. The inquiry is . . . as to the guilt of one who knowingly violates a law which has been properly enacted if he entertains a religious belief that the law is wrong."

And more particularly, were those who accepted polygamy as a duty of their religion "excepted from the operation of the statute?" The Court ruled against this particular and also against the general proposition in the following words:

"Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship; would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice?"

The Court raised the spectre of, in the opposite case, that every man would then "become a law unto himself" rendering civil government itself a mere fiction, existing in name only.

Thus did the Court render, in stark terms, the basic position in re religious exemptions from the law.


  1. Reynolds v. United States Complete text of the Court decision