1878 Supreme Court Case Used to Outlaw Christian Conduct


As Christians today, we are constantly being persecuted for living our faith. Christian owned bakeries, photographers, florists and reception centers are being sued for refusing to participate in homosexual ceremonies and marriages. Barack Obama, a Muslim who claims to be a Christian, is forcing Christian business owners, churches, colleges, universities and schools to violate their faith to comply with his contraception mandate. Military chaplains are being threatened with court-martials and dishonorable discharges for practicing their Christian faith. American military personnel abroad are banned from having their Bibles in plain view or from wearing crosses yet Muslims in our military can display their Korans.

The most recent public case of Christian persecution involved Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to homosexuals because of her Christian faith. After spending nearly a week in jail, Davis was released but still refuses to personally issue marriage licenses to homosexuals. She allows her deputy clerks to do so, but without her name as clerk written on the license.

In all of these cases, Christians turn to the First Amendment rights of free exercise of religion, thinking that they are legally protected. However, what most people fail to realize is that the United States Supreme Court nullified the right to religious conduct back in 1878, setting the precedent for all of our persecution today.

The case was Reynolds v. United States. The case involved criminal charges made against a Mormon for polygamy. The Mormons argued that having more than one wife was an important part of their belief and that they should be protected under the First Amendment.

According to case records:

“This is an indictment found in the District Court for the third judicial district of the Territory of Utah, charging George Reynolds with bigamy, in violation of sect. 5352 of the Revised Statutes, which, omitting its exceptions, is as follows:”

“‘Every person having a husband or wife living, who marries another, whether married or single, in a Territory, or other place over which the United States have exclusive jurisdiction, is guilty of bigamy, and shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500, and by imprisonment for a term of not more than five years.’”

Reynolds based part of his defense on what he believed were his First Amendment rights to the free exercise of his religion. The prosecutors in the case argued that his religious conduct resulted in the violation of a law, and therefore he was required to obey the law instead of exercising his religious beliefs.

Reynolds also argued that he had been improperly tried and convicted because the jury had fewer than 16 jurors as required by the law at the time.

The decision rendered by Chief Justice Waite considered six questions in the case, with question #5 being:

“Should the accused have been acquitted if he married the second time, because he believed it to be his religious duty?”

In his majority decision on question #5, Waite wrote:

“In our opinion, the statute immediately under consideration is within the legislative power of Congress. It is constitutional and valid as prescribing a rule of action for all those residing in the Territories, and in places over which the United States have exclusive control. This being so, the only question which remains is whether those who make polygamy a part of their religion are excepted from the operation of the statute. If they are, then those who do not make polygamy a part of their religious belief may be found guilty and punished, while those who do, must be acquitted and go free. This would be introducing a new element into criminal law. Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. 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? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband; would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice?

So here, as a law of the organization of society under the exclusive dominion of the United States, it is provided that plural marriages shall not be allowed. Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief?

To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and, in effect, to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.

A criminal intent is generally an element of crime, but every man is presumed to intend the necessary and legitimate consequences of what he knowingly does. Here, the accused knew he had been once married, and that his first wife was living. He also knew that his second marriage was forbidden by law. When, therefore, he married the second time, he is presumed to have intended to break the law. And the breaking of the law is the crime. Every act necessary to constitute the crime was knowingly done, and the crime was therefore knowingly committed. Ignorance of a fact may sometimes be taken as evidence of a want of criminal intent, but not ignorance of the law. The only defence of the accused in this case is his belief that the law ought not to have been enacted. It matters not that his belief was a part of his professed religion; it was still belief, and belief only.”

David Gibbs Jr. and David Gibbs III, attorneys with the Christian Law Association say that this court decision established the precedent that Christians cannot use their faith to violate the law. In their book Understanding the Constitution: Ten Things Every Christian Should Know About the Supreme Law of the Land, they wrote:

“The Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment have generally been more helpful to Christians in this century than the Free Exercise provisions because of a case decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1878. In the case of Reynolds v. U.S., the Court determined that the right to free exercise of religion related only to beliefs, not to conduct.

The Reynolds case involved the right of the government to make bigamy a crime in federal territories. Mormon religious advocates claimed that polygamy was their religious duty and, therefore, should not be criminalized. The United States Supreme Court held that no conduct could be justified when a neutrally applicable law was broken simply because a religious practice commanded it. This was one of the case precedents on which the Smith decision was based.

One should remember, however, that the Reynolds decision was issued at a time when judges and Justices of the Supreme Court still followed the legal principles of the fixed, uniform, and universal Biblical laws derived from the common law and did not generally decide cases on the basis of evolving precedents. Under that pre-evolutionary common law method, the Court was free in 1878 to determine that polygamy, like human sacrifice, was a religious belief ‘in violation of social duties.’

Today, however, in an immoral climate with evolving case precedents, this decisions has become a gold mine for precedents that prohibit conduct based on Christian principles. It will It will be interesting to note how the Supreme Court would handle this prior Reynolds decision in the event that same-sex marriage is declared to be a constitutionally protected right. If same-sex couples are granted a constitutional right to marry, how could the Court continue to declare polygamy to be a crime in America?…

It is a sad fact of twenty-first century legal jurisprudence that Christians are currently more successful when they defend their religious rights under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment than under the Free Exercise clause. First Amendment Free Speech is one of the most protected rights under the Constitution; but unfortunately, even this right is not absolute when it comes to defending religious liberties.” (pages 113-115, 2006.)

Obviously, this was written prior to this year’s landmark Supreme Court decision overturning the laws in four states that defined marriage as one man and one woman.

What Gibbs and Gibbs are saying is that the 1878 Reynolds decision is being used as a precedent by liberal activists to target and persecute Christians. It’s the precedent behind forcing Christian business owners to violate their faith and provide their services to homosexuals, regardless of their strong Christian faith. It’s the precedent behind Obama’s war on Christianity.

They know that this case said that Christian conduct or living cannot be allowed if it violates any law. Liberals see this as the incentive to pass more and more anti-Christian laws with which they can legally persecute every Christian in America. One by one, Christian conduct will be made unlawful by the passage of these anti-Christian laws and it all started with this one Supreme Court decision made 137 years ago, when the very same Supreme Court declared America to be a Christian nation as they did in the 1892 case of Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States.

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