I. Facts: George Reynolds was prosecuted for violation of § 5352 of the Revised Statutes in the territory of Utah. This statute held that any individual who was currently married to a living man or woman yet marries another man or woman is guilty of bigamy and may be punished by a maximum fine of $500 and up to you five years in prison. Mr. Reynolds argued that marrying more than one woman was required by his religion and failing or refusing to do so would result in "damnation in the life to come." Additionally, Mr. Reynolds argued that he received permission from the proper authorities of his church to marry his second wife. II. Issues: (a) Should the accused have been acquitted if he married the second time, because he believed it to be his religious duty, ie. does the First Amendment protect the accused's right to practice his religious beliefs by entering into more than one marriage? (b) Did the court [District Court for the third judicial district of the Territory of Utah] err in that part of the charge which directed the attention of the jury to the consequence of polygamy?
III. Holding: (a) No. (b) No. The conviction of George Reynolds was upheld.
IV. Reasoning: (a) In this case, the Court held that the First Amendment was not intended to, and therefore does not, protect the right to practice polygamy, even if such a practice is rooted in one's religious beliefs. The court looked back in history to determine the full scope of the First Amendment as applicable in this case. In doing so, they considered the argument made by Thomas Jefferson that basically confirmed that "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 to good order." Additionally, the court acknowledged that polygamy has, at all times in the history of the United States and the colonies before them been considered an offense against society. The Court held that marriage is a civil contract regulated by law and is itself a building stone of society. With this argument, the Court reasoned that from marriage "spring social relations and social obligations and duties, with which the government is necessarily required to deal." It was held therefore, that "it is within the legitimate scope of the power of every civil government to determine whether polygamy or monogamy shall be the law of social life under its dominion." § 5352 of the Revised Statutes was, therefore held by the Court to be valid. (b) The Court held in this case that, "while every appeal by the court to the passions or the prejudices of a jury should be promptly rebuked, and while it is the imperative duty of a reviewing court to take care that wrong is not done in this [way]," such appeals were absent in this case. In the eyes of the Court, all the lower court did was "call the attention of the jury to the peculiar character of the crime for which the accused was on trial" and "remind them of the duty they had to perform."
V. Concurring and Dissenting Opinions: (a) concurring opinion by Justice Field agreed with the decision of the court on all counts but disagreed on the admission of evidence by Amelia Schofield (the second woman that George Reynolds is held to have married).
VI. Significance: The Court in this case held that the government has the legitimate right to limit the performance of religious practices without violating the protection of the First Amendment's as long as its regulations do not interfere with religious belief and opinion. The Court used a further example in justifying this holding, arguing "suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice?" Additionally, the Court in this case issued a clear precedent that placed the laws of the government above the laws of any religion. Finally, in light of the Court's decision in Employment Division v. Smith, the courts finding in Reynolds became the precedent on which religious cases would be decided.