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

Reynolds v. United States (1878) was a test case put forward by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) in an attempt to prove that the Morrill Act of 1862 was a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. It was the first of a series of cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Mormons’ First Amendment claims. The Morrill Act, which made the Mormons’ religiously based polygamy a crime throughout the United States and the Territories, was the first in a series of laws enacted by Congress attacking the Mormon’s practice of polygamy.

These laws were enacted, and these cases tried, in an atmosphere of anti-Mormon hysteria that gripped the nation from the time that Brigham Young, who as successor to founder Joseph Smith, had led the Mormons to what is now Utah, publicly announced the church’s advocacy of polygamy in 1852 to at least 1890 when the church ostensibly banned the practice. The cases suggest that the Court was also in the grip of this hysteria.

The plaintiff, Reynolds, the private secretary of Brigham Young, pleaded not guilty to polygamy. In the subsequent trial, obviously polygamous jurors were struck for cause, and jurors with fairly obvious antipolygamous opinions were allowed to remain on the jury. The judge’s jury instructions bear repetition:

I think it not improper, in the discharge of your duties in this case, that you should consider what are to be the consequences to the innocent victims of this delusion. As this contest goes on, they multiply, and there are pure-minded women and there are innocent children, innocent in a sense even beyond the degree of the innocence of childhood itself. These are to be the sufferers; and as the jurors fail to do their duty, and as these cases come up in the Territory, just so do these victims multiply and spread themselves over the land.

Following these instructions, a jury verdict of guilty was inevitable, and Reynolds was sentenced to two years of hard labor and a $500 fine. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court, rejecting a variety of procedural appeals, concluded that Reynolds had been tried by an impartial jury.

In its examination of Reynolds’s free exercise clause argument, the Court first noted that ‘‘religion’’ had not been defined in the Constitution, suggesting that the Mormon practice of polygamy might not enjoy free exercise clause protection because Mormonism was not a religion. But the Court did not pursue this line of argument.

The Court instead focused on free exercise as the right to believe in any religion as opposed to the right to act in any way as part of the practice of religion. The Court found the origin of this ‘‘thought–action dichotomy’’ in Thomas Jefferson’s 1784 Virginia ‘‘Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,’’ which later was embodied in the First Amendment. Thus, the Court reasoned, ‘‘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.’’

The Court noted that polygamy had always been a crime, punishable by death, in England and that Virginia, after passage of the above-mentioned Religious Freedom Act, adopted the English statute making it a capital felony.

The Court next applied the ‘‘slippery slope’’ argument, outlining the horrors that would result if the exercise of religiously based polygamy were allowed. Human sacrifice and Suttee, the Hindu practice, banned by the British in colonial India, of a widow throwing herself upon the burning funeral pyre of her dead husband, were cited.

Perhaps the Court’s biases are further exposed by the statement that ‘‘[p]olygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe,’’ but was ‘‘exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people.’’

Of small solace to Reynolds and the Mormons, reacting to a petition for rehearing, the Court concluded that Reynolds’s imprisonment should not be ‘‘at hard labor’’ because the Morrill Act called for imprisonment only.

KEITH E. SEALING

References and Further Reading

  • Sealing, Keith, Polygamists Out of the Closet: Statutory and State Constitutional Prohibitions against Polygamy Are Unconstitutional under the Free Exercise Clause, Georgia State University Law Review 17 (2001): 691.
  • Ostling, Richard, and Joan Ostling. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1999.
  • Van Wagoner, Richard. Mormon Polygamy: A History. 2nd ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1989.

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