- 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.
The full text is available here: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/98/145/
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