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Reynolds v. U.S.: 1879

Congress Strengthens Anti-bigamy Law, The Supreme Court Destroys Mormons' Hopes, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: George Reynolds
Crime Charged: Bigamy
Chief Defense Lawyers: George W. Biddle and Ben Sheeks
Chief Prosecutor: William Carey
Judge: Alexander White
Place: Salt Lake City, Utah
Dates of Trial: October 30-December 10, 1875
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Two years imprisonment and a$500 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: The Mormons, who settled Utah, permitted members of their religion to practice polygamy. In Reynolds, the Supreme Court held that federal legislation banning polygamy was constitutional and did not violate the Mormons' First Amendment right to free exercise of their religion. The Reynolds case still remains the leading Supreme Court decision that the First Amendment does not protect polygamy.

After a somewhat checkered history and a long trek westward, in the mid-19th century the followers of a religious prophet named Joseph Smith settled the western lands that became the state of Utah. Their religion was called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but most people called them the Mormons. They held a variety of novel beliefs, ranging from their conviction that Jesus Christ visited the American Indians to a prohibition against caffeine drinks such as coffee and tea. Their most controversial belief, however, was that a man could have more than one wife.

Most of the United States knew about the Mormon practice of polygamy since 1852. Most Americans were traditional Christians and believed in monogamy, or having only one spouse. Until the Mormons arrived, however, there were no federal laws against bigamy (legal term for marrying a second spouse while still married to a first spouse) or polygamy (practice of having several spouses). The government left the Mormons alone for many years, but in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act into law. The Morrill Act outlawed polygamy throughout the United States in general and in Utah in particular. The government did not do much to enforce the law, however, because it was preoccupied with the Civil War.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882