You are currently viewing Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145; 25 L. Ed. 244; 1848 U.S. LEXIS 1374 (1879)

Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145; 25 L. Ed. 244; 1848 U.S. LEXIS 1374 (1879)

Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145; 25 L. Ed. 244; 1848 U.S. LEXIS 1374 (1879)

Facts—George Reynolds was convicted in a District Court in the territory of Utah for bigamy. In addition to claiming that a number of procedural irregularities had voided his conviction, Reynolds argued that the judge should have instructed the jury that Reynolds’s religious beliefs were a defense for the crime for which he was convicted.


(a) Did Reynolds’s trial violate due process of law?

(b) Should the jury have been instructed that Reynolds’s religious beliefs could mitigate his crime?


(a) No;

(b) No.

ReasonsC.J. Waite (9–0). Waite upheld a grand jury indictment as consistent with laws governing the territory. Similarly, he ruled that the judge had properly handled challenges for cause while seating jurors and had properly admitted sworn evidence of a witness (one of Reynolds’s wives) unavailable at this trial but available in a previous one where she was subject to cross- examination.

Reynolds justified his actions on the basis that they stemmed from his belief as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had approved his second marriage, but the Court decided that religious belief was not an acceptable reason for violating criminal law. Examining the history of the First Amendment religion clauses, the Court cited Jefferson’s belief that it created a “wall of separation” between church and state. The Court ruled that the amendment did not deprive Congress of its power “to reach actions which were in violation of social duties subversive of good order.” Waite observed that polygamy had long been considered “odious among the northern and western nations of Europe,” and that it had been illegal under common law, which regarded marriage not simply as a “sacred obligation” but also as a “civil contract.” States had reaffirmed laws against plural marriages not long after adoption of the First Amendment. “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.” Reynolds’s criminal intent could be surmised from the fact that the law was in effect when he broke it. The trial judge was within his rights in pointing to the harm that plural marriages brought upon innocent women and children involved.

In concurrence, J. Field argued that insufficient evidence had been provided as to the legitimacy of the trial court’s use of testimony from the witness in the previous case.

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