Reevaluating Reynolds: The Constitutional Case for Religiously Motivated Polygamy

  •  Paul Baumgardner    


In 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court defined, and applied, the free exercise clause of the United States Constitution for the first time. The case, Reynolds v. United States, concerned the constitutionality of the Morrill Act of 1862, which made it a federal crime to practice polygamy. This congressional act was neither the first nor the last federal action taken to suppress the growing Mormon faith. However, the Reynolds case did signify the first time that the Supreme Court rendered a decision concerning minority religious rights. Although the Mormon Church believed that the First Amendment protected such integral faith-based actions as polygamy, the Court deemed polygamy to be "morally odious" and outside the realm of constitutional protection. However, the judicial unanimity reached in Reynolds would be more difficult to arrive at today. The evolution of American society over the past 133 years has supplied ample room for a contemporary reevaluation of Reynolds v. United States. In particular, modern First Amendment jurisprudence casts considerable doubt on the legal wisdom of Reynolds. The Supreme Court’s recent protections of heterodox lifestyles, faiths, and sexual behaviors also indicate that a religiously motivated polygamy case would likely receive a much more favorable treatment today.

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