US v Reynolds

1878

Summary

  • George Reynolds, a resident of the Utah territory, challenged the federal anti-bigamy statute.
  • Reynolds was still married to a woman named Mary Ann when he married another.
  • Under federal law, he was guilty of bigamy and was convicted in a Utah territorial district court.
  • The law stated, "Every person having a husband or wife living, who marries another, whether married or single, in a Territory, or other place over which the U.S have exclusive jurisdiction, is guilty of bigamy, and shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500, and by imprisonment for a term of not more than five years."
  • Reynolds's argument was that the law was unconstitutional because it violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion because, he claimed, the mormon faith required him to marry multiple women.

Constitutional Issue

Does the federal anti-bigamy statute violate the First Amendment's free exercise clause because plural marriage is part of religious practice?

Conclusion & Precedent

Conclusion: The Supreme Court ruled against Reynolds saying that the statute can punish criminal activity without regard to religious belief. Also, that the First Amendment protected religious belief, but it did not protect religious practices that were judged to be criminal such as bigamy.

Precedent: Religious acts cannot make legal an illegal action if it's illegal for secular, logical reasons.

Historic Significance

  • In 1890, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whom Reynolds associated with, officially rejected polygamy and issued a statement dissolving "any marriages forbidden by the law of the land."

Significance Today

Reynolds v US was the first major decision that attempted to set a definition for what marriage is, which was defined as monogamous. This is relevent today with the legalization of same-sex marriage, a result of the Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v Hodges (2015). The decision expanded the definition of marriage.