Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890)

Davis v. Beason (1890) was an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a conviction for unlawfully attempting to register to vote in violation of an Idaho statute that denied the franchise to would-be voters who practiced polygamy, belonged to an organization that practiced polygamy or taught, advised, counseled, or encouraged polygamy. The statute also required that applicants swear an oath to that effect.

The Utah statute was created in a nationwide atmosphere of anti-Mormon sentiment and must be viewed in the context of the federal acts of Congress aimed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). From 1852, when Brigham Young made public a church practice that had gone on underground for at least two decades, to at least 1890, when the church officially banned the practice, the public practice of polygamy was the touchstone that ignited popular sentiment against the young church.

Samuel Davis and other Mormons registered to vote in Utah and, in so doing, as required by the Utah statute, took an oath stating that they were not polygamists and did not belong to any organization that taught or encouraged polygamy. Thus, because they belonged to the Mormon Church that practiced and encouraged polygamy, they had committed perjury and violated the statute. Davis argued that the statute under which he was convicted violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The case was short on constitutional analysis, relied heavily upon the first Mormon case of two years prior, Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878), and was transparent in its condemnation of Mormon beliefs, ‘‘To call [the Mormons’] advocacy [of polygamy] a tenet of religion is to offend the common sense of mankind.’’

As it had done in Reynolds, the Court first distinguished Mormonism from true religion, describing it as a ‘‘cultus or form of worship of a particular sect.’’ The Court stated that the First Amendment religious freedoms were enacted as a response to the ‘‘oppressive measures’’ enacted by the dominant religions in European countries, but were never intended to protect acts ‘‘inimical to the peace, good order, and morals of a society.’’

What if certain sects had advocated promiscuity, suttee (the Hindu practice of a wife throwing herself upon her deceased husband’s funeral pyre), or human sacrifice, the Court asked. ‘‘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 concluded with a note that at least thirteen state constitutions expressly excluded ‘‘acts of licentiousness’’ from free exercise protection, including those of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New York, and South Carolina.

The case was the third in a series of defeats for the polygamous Mormon Church, following Reynolds v. United States (1878) and Murphy v. Ramsey, 114 U.S. 15, 45 (1885). It hit the church particularly hard because, in upholding the state law, the Court made it impossible for Mormons to vote in local elections and greatly diminished the local political clout that Mormons had previously been able to wield due to their geographic concentration. However, the final and most serious blow to Mormon polygamy was to come five years later in Late Corp. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States.

KEITH E. SEALING

References and Further Reading

  • Ostling, Richard, and Joan Ostling. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. New York: Harper, 1999.
  • Sealing, Keith, Polygamists out of the Closet: Statutory and State Constitutional Prohibitions Against Polygamy Are Unconstitutional Under the Free Exercise Clause, Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 17 (2001): 691.
  • Van Wagoner, Richard. Mormon Polygamy: A History. Gaithersburg, MD: Signature Books, 1989.

See also Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878)

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