The death-knell of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints’ (Mormons) hope for accommodation of its religiously based practice of polygamy and its goal of statehood for a polygamous Utah came with the Supreme Court’s decision in Late Corp. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States (1890). This case was the capstone of a series of Court defeats that began in 1878 with Reynolds v. United States (1878) and which remain the law of the land today (see Reynolds v. United States). The case must also be seen in the context of a series of increasingly draconian federal laws enacted in response to the church’s public espousal of polygamy, which began in 1852.
Although the case was primarily an exploration of the extent of Congressional power in the Territories, the Court also addressed and rejected the Mormons’ claim that polygamy was protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Acting pursuant to the Edmund-Tucker Act of 1887, the federal government had dissolved the church as an incorporated charitable entity and began proceedings to escheat virtually all property of the church over to the United States. When the church appealed the government’s success at trial in Utah, the Supreme Court held that Congress had the power to repeal the church’s charter, on the basis of its plenary power to govern the territories and that it also had the power to seize the church’s property. Finally, after a lengthy discussion of the doctrine of charitable uses, it held that Congress could also use the church’s property to benefit public schools in the Territory.
The Court again revealed its feelings toward the church and polygamy. Polygamy was ‘‘a crime against the laws, and abhorrent to the sentiments and feelings of the civilized world.’’ Polygamy, the Court continued, ‘‘is contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western world.’’
Therefore, the church’s free exercise argument as ‘‘altogether a sophistical plea.’’ The Court warned that tolerance of polygamy would mean approval of the ‘‘Thugs of India’’ (the Hindu cult of assassinpriests who victimized travelers) and suttee (the Hindu practice of a widow throwing herself upon the funeral pyre of her husband), as well as the practice of ‘‘our own ancestors in Britain’’ of human sacrifice.
Largely as a result of this resounding judicial defeat the church renounced polygamy in 1890, and the territorial legislature enacted an anti-polygamy provision for the state constitution that remains part of Utah’s constitution today.
KEITH E. SEALING
References and Further Reading