Reynolds v. United States
Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878).
Facts: The LDS Church taught that it was the duty of male members to practice polygamy. Congress outlawed it, and denied them the right to vote. Congress then annulled the corporate charter of the LDS Church and declared most of its property forfeit. Reynolds, (D) an LDS Church member, was convicted of violating antibigamy laws. He was sentenced to two years in prison. D appeals.
Issue: May the federal government outlaw polygamy if it is a religious practice?
- Although Congress may not make any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion, this applies to laws governing opinions. It does not restrict Congress from reaching actions that violated social duties or that are subversive of good order.
- Polygamy has not been accepted in Europe and until the Mormons began practicing it, polygamy was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and African people. In England, polygamy has been treated as an offense against society, and this principle carried on in the various states. Therefore, the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom could not have intended to prohibit legislation in respect to this most important feature of social life.
- Given that congress could forbid polygamy, D’s conviction must stand unless there is an exception for those who make polygamy a part of their religion. Such an exemption would undermine criminal law, which is based on conduct, not belief. A religious exemption could apply as well to human sacrifices or any other religious practice.