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

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  • At the time of the decision, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had a practice of polygamy.
  • George Reynolds, a member of the Church, was charged with bigamy under the Anti-Bigamy Act (“the Act“).
  • Reynolds challenged the Act in the US Supreme Court, arguing that the Act was unconstitutional in that it conflicted with the First Amendment right of freedom of religion; as a Mormon, Reynolds was religiously required to marry multiple wives.


  • Was the Anti-Bigamy Act unconstitutional?


  • The US Supreme Court upheld Reynolds’ conviction.
  • The US Congress cannot pass a law that prohibits the free exercise of religion.
  • However, the Court considered that there was a distinction between religious belief and action that flowed from religious belief. A person’s religious belief “lies solely between man and his God“. Accordingly, “the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions.
  • The Court believed the First Amendment forbade Congress from legislating against opinion, but allowed it to legislate against action.
  • The First Amendment protects the right to hold any religious belief, but not the right to engage in any religious activity whatsoever.

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