Reevaluating Reynolds: The Constitutional Case for Religiously Motivated Polygamy
Access changed 12/15/14.
In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court defined, and applied, the free exercise clause of the First Amendment 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. Although the Mormon Church believed that the free exercise clause 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 evolution of marital standards, minority freedoms, and free exercise jurisprudence over the past 133 years of American history has supplied ample room for a contemporary reevaluation of Reynolds v. United States. In particular, the Supreme Court’s recent protections of same-sex lifestyles and heterodox religious conduct indicate that a religiously motivated polygamy case would receive a much more favorable treatment today.