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Polygamy decision helped shape religious minority experience in U.S.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

More than 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision on polygamy that would help shape the religious minority experience in America.

In Reynolds v. U.S., the high court decided that a Utah territory man's religious belief in plural marriage didn't exempt him from the bigamy law banning it.

"That basic idea has persisted," ever since, said Daniel Mach, the Washington, D.C.-based director of the American Civil Liberties Union's program on freedom of religion and belief.

Mach appeared at Weber State University Wednesday for a lecture and discussion on the history of religious minorities in America, from Jehovah's Witnesses to American Indians.

He said the U.S. is one of most religious countries and also one of the most religiously diverse, largely thanks to the constitutional prohibitions on the government establishing a religion or interfering with its free exercise.

That second guarantee has limits, however, one of which was defined by the 1879 Reynolds decision. The Supreme Court reinforced the concept in 1990, when the justices decided against a group of American Indians who said they shouldn't have been fired from their jobs as drug counselors for religious use of the illegal drug peyote, Mach said.

But the high court also once reversed itself on religious minority rights. In 1940, the justices ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses' religious principles didn't give them the right to sit out the pledge of allegiance. Their decision was met with widespread violence and discrimination against Jehovah's Witnesses, and three years later, the Supreme Court reversed it.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, discrimination against Muslims has become "one of the biggest religious challenges of our time," Mach said.

Polygamy, meanwhile, has come full circle. The Brown family, made famous by the reality TV show "Sister Wives" is again challenging the law banning polygamy, this time in a Utah federal court on the basis of a right to privacy.

The ACLU takes the position that Utah's bigamy law, which prohibits so-called spiritual or celestial marriages, is unconstitutional, but hasn't gotten involved in the Brown case.

"If you're not even seeking the benefits of the state, the state has very little interest in stepping in and saying you can't do that," Mach said, referring to Fundamentalist Mormon's so-called celestial, not legal, marriages. When it comes to legalizing polygamy, though, "I think we have a society and a judiciary that's pretty skeptical."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

The Polygamy Blog: http://bit.ly/Ar3JVq

ACLU • Expert says polygamy ruling has shaped religious experience in U.S.
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