The Waite Court (1874–88)

Miscellaneous Decisions

What Waite Court decision rejected a First Amendment challenge to polygamy laws?

The Waite Court unanimously ruled in Reynolds v. United States (1878) that an antibigamy law in the territory of Utah (which was not a state yet) did not violate the First Amendment rights of a Mormon man named George Reynolds who had more than one wife.

The law in question provided: “Every person having a husband or wife living, who marries another, whether married or single, in a Territory, or other place over which the United States have exclusive jurisdiction, is guilty of bigamy, and shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500, and by imprisonment for a term of not more than five years.”

Reynolds contended that he could not be convicted of a crime for exercising his religious beliefs. Chief Justice Waite responded that while a person may not be punished for their religious beliefs, they may be punished for their actions that violate the criminal laws. In other words, there is no defense to illegal conduct by claiming it was inspired by religious beliefs. “Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief?” Waite wrote. “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.”


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