Chief Justice Waite, in delivering the opinion of the Court, quoted from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Danbury Baptist Association:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions — I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
“Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.”
The Court ruled that government had a legitimate interest in prohibiting plural marriages, and that religious belief was not a valid reason for violating the law. As such, the US Supreme Court held that the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 (not to be confused with the Morrill Land-Grant Act, passed the same year), criminalizing polygamy, was constitutional and not a violation of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause.
The Mormon Church renounced plural marriage in 1890, and instructed its followers to adhere to the laws of the United States.
*[The federal government forced the Church to unincorporate under the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, confiscating certain church-owned property, revoking the Mormons’ right to vote and hold public office, and increasing the legal penalties for polygamy, but this occurred nearly a decade after Reynolds, and was politically motivated. The Act was finally repealed in 1978.]
Reynolds v. United States, 98 US 145 (1878)
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