Reynolds v. United States in 1879: Summary & Decision

Instructor: Janell Blanco
In this lesson we will discuss the case of ''Reynold's v. United States''. We'll take a look at the case summary and learn how the courts ruled in the case. Following this you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

Reynold's v. United States Summary

Setting: Utah Territory in 1878-1879

Issues at hand: bigamy and free exercise of religion.

One of the first cases involving bigamy happened in 1878. Bigamist George Reynolds was charged with the crime of being married to more than one lady at the same time.

What Is Bigamy?

Bigamy and polygamy are synonymous. They are defined as having more than one marriage at the same time, historically between one man and multiple women. Reynolds was a Mormon and he followed his religious belief that multiple marriages were honored and even required of some of the men in the religion. Reynolds was married to Mary Ann Tuddenham and Amelia Jane Schofield at the same time.

You see, this posed a problem with the Federal Government at the time.

Morrill-Anti Bigamy Act

In 1878, Utah was a Federal territory so they were required to follow the Federal laws.

But guess what? A Federal law prohibited multiple marriages in Federal territories. The Morrill Ant-Bigamy Act is the exact law that Reynolds violated, so you can imagine that his bigamous marriage was a problem. The Act was signed into law in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, prohibiting plural marriages.

Reynolds felt this law was unconstitutional and that the law infringed upon his 1st Amendment Right of freedom of religion. He felt that he wasn't able to freely practice his religion with a law that prohibited multiple marriages.

Thus, the case Reynolds v. United States was filed in 1878 and ruled upon in 1879. Reynolds, obviously, plead not guilty to the charges of bigamy.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court who issued a ruling. Let's see how the Supreme Court Ruled.

Decision

Reynolds tried to use the defense that his religious beliefs make his decisions legal. The ruling, in a 6-3 vote, was to uphold the law and convict Reynolds of bigamy. The Supreme Court also stated that the laws cannot interfere with religion but the laws can place regulations on religious practices.

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