SJ Quinney College of Law, University of Utah

Utah OnLaw: The Utah Law Review Online Supplement


Stephen Kent


Efforts to legalize or at least decriminalize polygamy have not been able to get around the 1878 Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. United States, written by Chief Justice Morrison Remick Waite (1816-1888). Subsequent court decisions have deemphasized various aspects of his ruling, but his fundamental conclusion—that polygamy is sufficiently harmful to justify criminalization—remains. As legal scholar Marci Hamilton concluded, Waite’s decision in Reynolds “articulated what would eventually become the dominant doctrine for the free exercise of religion: religious belief is absolutely protected, but religious conduct is subject to the rule of law.” “[T]he core logic of Reynolds v. United States,” concluded political scientist C. Peter Magrath, was “irrefutable.”