When it came to the First Amendment right of religious freedom and setting a precedent, Reynolds v. US (1874) would separate religious belief and practice; however, Reynolds would not be granted a religious exemption to a state statute forbidding polygamy.
Here’s the facts. George Reynolds, a Mormon and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was charged with bigamy under the Anti-Bigamy Act, which Reynolds argued was unconsitutional based on his First Amendment right of religous freedom. Basically, Reynolds wanted many wives, which was encouraged by his churches’ faith and doctrine.
Now, here’s the issue. What does the First amendment’s religous freedom mean?
The Supreme Court ruled this way. The federal anti-bigamy statute does not violate the religious Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Chief Justice Morrison Waite delivered the majority opinion. In his opinion, Justice Waite talked about human sacrifice and why society prevents it: To permit this [human sacrifice] 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.” Justice Waite equated polygamy which human sacrifice, which society does not allow on religious grounds since every man would become a law onto himself.
In the Reynolds case, the Supreme Court would not equate religoius belief with practice. The Court told Reynolds his religous belief was acceptable. However, when Reynolds practiced his religion by practicing polygamy, he broke the law of the land. The Court said the First Amendment right of religion freedom only extends to religous belief in regards to the law.
Nevertheless, in time, the Court would contract itself, in regards to religous freedom and rule inconsistantly in Sherbert v. Verner (1963). Here, the Supreme gave a religous exempt to a statute, which allowed Adele Sherbert a day off her work on Saturdays based on her Seventh Day Adventist faith. Sherbert v. Verner allowed belief and practice, which the Supreme Court ruled against in Reynolds v. US.
That being said, the Court would continue a pattern of ruling inconsistently in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). Here, the Supreme Court would not grant a religous exemption from a state statute, which would exempt Native Americans from a law of general applicability to smoke peyote and claim unemployment benefits on religions grounds.
Essentially, the Supreme Court ruled all over the place in regards to the three First Amendment religious cases. In Reynolds, the Court was not willing to allow polygamy based on the First Amendment. In Sherbert, the Court allowed Sherbert a religious exemption because Adele Sherbert wasn’t allowed to work on Saturdays according to her religion. Finally, in Smith, the Court would not allow a religious exemption in regards to the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause. The Court has never been consistent with it’s rulings or precedents in regards to the First Amendment’s right to religious freedom.
In brief, Reynolds set the precedent to separate religous belief and practice. The Supreme Courts said Reynolds was allowed to believe in polygamy, which was part of his churches’ religious doctrine. However, the Supreme Court said the minute Reynolds practised polygamy, he broke the the law of the land. That being said, in time, the Supreme Court would set inconsistent precedents in regards to religous belief, religous practice, and the First Amendment right of religious freedom.