Upholding a congressional prohibition on polygamy, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects all religious beliefs but does not protect religiously motivated practices judged harmful to the public interest.
George Reynolds, an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite's decision in Reynolds distinguished between beliefs and conduct.
Reynolds is considered a landmark because it was the Court’s first major pronouncement on the topic of the free exercise clause in relation to an unconventional religious practice. Waite’s formulation of a belief-conduct distinction was important for later cases, as was his reference to the Jeffersonian metaphor of “a wall of separation between church and state.” Although the opinion recognized that Congress could not prohibit a religious practice without a reasonable basis, it did not demand a very compelling justification. During this period, rights under the First Amendment were not applicable to the states, but Reynolds was in total conformity with state laws on marriage and religion.
Davis v. Beason
Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith
Religion, freedom of
Waite, Morrison R.