Reynolds v. United States
98 U.S. 145, 25 L.Ed. 244 (1878)

  • Reynolds was legally married to Mary Ann. Then he went and married Amelia. He was arrested and charged with bigamy.
    • Reynolds was a Mormon.
  • The Trial Court convicted Reynolds of bigamy and sentenced him to two years of hard labor. He appealed.
    • Reynolds argued that the law against having multiple wives was an unconstitutional violation of his 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion.
      • At the time, the Mormon Church said that polygamy was a religious duty.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Reynolds appealed.
  • The Utah Supreme Court affirmed, Reynolds appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court looked to historical precedent and found that polygamy has never been legal in US or European law. It has also never been practiced, except by “Asiatic and African peoples.”
    • The Court found that the law was constitutional because, although marriage does have religious connotations, it is also a civil contract, and usually regulated by law.
    • The Court considered granting an exemption for religious beliefs, but rejected the idea. They found that would add a new element to criminal law.
      • “Laws are made for government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.”
      • The Court suggested that they could never approve of a religious requirement for human sacrifice, for example.
  • This case said that the State does not regulate belief, but it can regulate conduct.
    • Reynolds was free to lobby the Utah State Legislature to change the law.
  • This case is usually cited as recognizing State authority to define marriage as monogamous and to impose sanctions based on polygamy.
    • This case was the first major decision that attempted to define what marriage is.