• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court allowed a territory to deny the vote to members of a religious sect that advocated an illegal practice.

In the landmark 1879 case, Reynolds v. United States,[case]Reynolds v. United States[Reynolds v. United States] the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on polygamy, a religious practice of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time. Idaho subsequently enacted a territorial statute that denied the right to vote to anyone who practiced polygamy or who belonged to an organization that advocated polygamy. Samuel Davis and other nonpolygamous Mormons sued after they were not allowed to vote in the election of 1888.Religion, freedom of;Davis v. Beason[Davis v. Beason]Vote, right to;Davis v. Beason[Davis v. Beason]

By a 9-0 vote, the Court upheld the statute. Taking a very narrow view of both religion and the free exercise clause, Justice Stephen J. FieldField, Stephen J.;Davis v. Beason[Davis v. Beason] construed the statute as simply excluding the privilege of voting from those who encouraged and approved of the commission of “odious” crimes. Although persons could not be punished for their beliefs, membership in a church was considered a conduct; therefore membership itself was not protected by the First Amendment. Few people would defend Davis a century later. In Romer v. Evans (1996),[case]Romer v. Evans[Romer v. Evans] Justice Anthony M. Kennedy observed that Davis was no longer good law to the extent that it held that advocacy of a certain practice could be the basis for denying a person the right to vote.[case]Davis v. Beason[Davis v. Beason]

Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith

First Amendment

Religion, freedom of

Reynolds v. United States

Romer v. Evans

Vote, right to

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