The Separation of Church and State

By Darien A. McWhirter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER seven
When Religion Conflicts with the Law

DISCUSSION

The First Amendment protects the right to freely exercise religion, but what exactly does the right to freely exercise religion mean? As we have seen in the previous chapters, this right means that religious people have the right to believe whatever they want to believe without interference from government, even interference in the form of a forced Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The right to freely exercise religion also means that religious people have the right to speak to others about their religious beliefs without unreasonable government interference, even if their speech is a nuisance to others. The difficult question has been: Does the right to freely exercise religion include the right to do something that is otherwise a violation of the criminal law?


POLYGAMY

The first Supreme Court decision to deal with this issue came in 1878. The case, Reynolds v. United States (see p. 120), involved the question of whether Mormons could have more than one wife, in violation of federal law. Federal law applied to Utah at the time because Utah was a territory. ( Utah did not become a state until 1896.) A Mormon man, convicted of violating the laws against polygamy, appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that his conviction had to be overturned because the law against polygamy interfered with his right to freely practice his religion.

The members of the Supreme Court were called upon to interpret this section of the First Amendment for the first time. They examined the writings

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