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Majority Opinions Authored by Justice Morrison Waite

George Reynolds, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church, was convicted by a jury in the Utah Territory of bigamy for engaging in a plural marriage. Reynolds raised several assignments of error, some related to evidence law and criminal procedure, and including an assertion that his conviction for bigamy violated his right to freely exercise his religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Reynolds contended that his religion encouraged and in some circumstances mandated plural marriage, and offered testimony in support of this. Nonetheless, he was convicted. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction, stating that to hold otherwise would allow absurd results and permit religious beliefs to rise above the law. Allowing Reynolds's religious defense would, according to the Court, "permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could only exist in name under such circumstances." Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 167 (1878).



This case comes here with a certificate by the judges of the Circuit Court for the District of Louisiana that they were divided in opinion upon a question which occurred at the hearing. It presents for our consideration an indictment containing sixteen counts, divided into two series of eight counts each, based upon sect. 6 of the Enforcement Act of May 31, 1870. That section is as follows:—"That if two or more persons shall band or conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another, with intent to violate any provision of this act, or to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having exercised the same, such persons shall be held guilty of felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be fined or imprisoned, or both, at the discretion of the court, — the fine not to exceed $5,000, and the imprisonment not to exceed ten years; and shall, moreover, be thereafter ineligible to, and disabled from holding, any office or place of honor, profit, or trust created by the constitution or laws of the United States." 16 Stat. 141.