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The Mormon Cases

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The Mormon Cases

The Court’s first encounter with free exercise claims occurred in a series of cases in which the Federal Government and the territories moved against the Mormons because of their practice of polygamy. Actual prosecutions and convictions for bigamy presented little problem for the Court, inasmuch as it could distinguish between beliefs and acts.247 But the presence of large numbers of Mormons in some of the territories made convictions for bigamy difficult to obtain, and in 1882 Congress enacted a statute which barred “bigamists,” “polygamists,” and “any person cohabiting with more than one woman” from voting or serving on juries. The Court sustained the law, even as applied to persons entering the state prior to enactment of the original law prohibiting bigamy and to persons as to whom the statute of limitations had run.248 Subsequently, an act of a territorial legislature which required a prospective voter not only to swear that he was not a bigamist or polygamist but also that “I am not a member of any order, organization or association which teaches, advises, counsels or encourages its members, devotees or any other person to commit the crime of bigamy or polygamy . . . or which practices bigamy, polygamy or plural or celestial marriage as a doctrinal rite of such organization; that I do not and will not, publicly or privately, or in any manner whatever teach, advise, counsel or encourage any person to commit the crime of bigamy or polygamy . . . ,” was upheld in an opinion that condemned plural marriage and its advocacy as equal evils.249 And, finally, the Court sustained the revocation of the charter of the Mormon Church and confiscation of all church property not actually used for religious worship or for burial.250

245 494 U.S. 872, 878 (1990).

246 494 U.S. at 890.

247 Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879); cf. Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14 (1946) (no religious-belief defense to Mann Act prosecution for transporting a woman across state line for the “immoral purpose” of polygamy).

248 Murphy v. Ramsey, 114 U.S. 15 (1885).

249 Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890). “Bigamy and polygamy are crimes by the laws of all civilized and Christian countries.... To call their advocacy a tenet of religion is to offend the common sense of mankind. If they are crimes, then to teach, advise and counsel their practice is to aid in their commission, and such teaching and counseling are themselves criminal and proper subjects of punishment, as aiding and abetting crime are in all other cases.” Id. at 341-42.

250 The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. United States, 136 U.S. 1 (1890). “[T]he property of the said corporation . . . [is to be used to promote] the practice of polygamy—a crime against the laws, and abhorrent to the sentiments and feelings of the civilized world.... The organization of a community for the spread and practice of polygamy is, in a measure, a return to barbarism. It is contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization which Christianity had produced in the Western world.” Id. at 48-49.

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Last modified: September 17, 2012