133 U.S. 333 (1890), argued 9–10 Dec. 1889, decided 3 Feb. 1890 by vote of 9 to o; Field for the Court. Davis v. Beason interpreted free exercise of religion narrowly and inconsistently. Idaho had enacted a territorial statute denying the vote to those who advocated or practiced plural marriage or belonged to an organization that did. Samuel B. Davis and a number of nonpolygamous Mormons, after trying unsuccessfully to vote in the 1888 election, sued. The Idaho court treated their disfranchisement solely as a political question. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the statute as within the territorial powers of the legislature to set voter qualifications. The justices held that religion was a matter of belief, which was constitutionally protected but that conduct was outside the purview of the First Amendment. The Court then defined polygamy as conduct rather than religious belief. Using the Idaho statute as a soapbox for a diatribe on polygamy, Justice Stephen J. Field concluded that “crime is not the less odious because sanctioned by what any particular sect may designate as religion” (p. 345). The preservation of a monogamous family unit was more important to American society than religious liberty for believers in polygamy. “Religion” was defined solely as having reference to one's view of relations with the creator and to the obligations they imposed.
Paul L. Murphy