A Delicate Balance: The Free Exercise Clause and the Supreme Court
Limitations on Free Exercise Rights
Polygamy and Other Early Cases
The Supreme Court’s first decisions concerning the Free Exercise Clause arose from the federal government’s campaign in the late 19th century against polygamy among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) – also known as Mormons – in the Utah, Idaho and Arizona territories. In Reynolds v. United States (1879), the court upheld the successful criminal prosecution of a prominent Mormon, George Reynolds, for practicing bigamy in Utah. Reynolds had argued that it was a religious obligation for him to take multiple wives and that the Free Exercise Clause should immunize him from prosecution. But the court concluded that while the Free Exercise Clause guarantees freedom of religious belief, it does not protect religiously motivated actions – such as polygamy – if those actions conflict with the law.
Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Morrison Waite said,“Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may [interfere] with practices. ”Waite went on to state that to permit someone to use religious belief as an excuse to ignore legal requirements would “in effect … permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
A decade later, in another case that involved polygamy, the Supreme Court reinforced the view that the federal government may suppress religious practices that conflict with the law. In Davis v. Beason (1890), the court upheld the conviction of an LDS church member who had falsely sworn a public oath that he did not advocate or believe in polygamy, as was required at the time from persons who sought to vote in the Utah, Idaho or Arizona territories. The right of free exercise, the court ruled in Davis, provided no defense to the charge of swearing a false oath, even though Davis himself had not engaged in a plural marriage.
The same year as the Davis ruling, the Supreme Court upheld lower court orders that had placed the entire LDS church and all of its property under the control of the federal government on the grounds that the church and its leadership constituted an organization that unlawfully advocated plural marriage. Only after the church firmly and formally renounced polygamy later that year did the federal government relinquish control and restore the church’s property.
The Supreme Court’s opinions in Reynolds and Davis, which rejected the idea that religiously motivated actions were exempt from general laws, remained controlling precedents for more than 70 years. Not until the 1960s, under Chief Justice Earl Warren and his successors, did the court begin to issue decisions that expanded the type of activity protected by the Free Exercise Clause. But even before Warren’s tenure as chief justice, the Supreme Court issued a number of important decisions that began to reshape the government’s role in safeguarding religious freedom.
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