Davis v. Beason - Wikipedia

Davis v. Beason
Argued December 9–10, 1889
Decided February 3, 1890
Full case nameDavis v. Beason, Sheriff.
Citations133 U.S. 333 (more)
10 S. Ct. 299; 33 L. Ed. 637; 1890 U.S. LEXIS 1915
Courts of the United States have jurisdiction to hear charges related to polygamy, even though it is apart of religious belief.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
Samuel F. Miller · Stephen J. Field
Joseph P. Bradley · John M. Harlan
Horace Gray · Samuel Blatchford
Lucius Q. C. Lamar II · David J. Brewer
Case opinion
MajorityField, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Amendment I

Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890), was a United States Supreme Court case affirming, by a 9–0 vote, that federal laws against polygamy did not conflict with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.


Congress had passed the Edmunds Act in 1882, which made polygamy a felony; over 1,300 Mormons were imprisoned. The Act also required test oaths requiring voters to swear they were not bigamists or polygamists. A statute of the Idaho Territory required a similar oath in order to register to vote, in order to limit or eliminate Mormons' participation in government and their control of local schools.[1] The loyalty also forbade being a member of any organization that advocated or spent resources defending bigamy or polygamy.

Mormons initiated a challenge to Idaho's oath test by having members who did not have plural marriages registering to vote. Samuel D. Davis, a resident of Oneida County, Idaho, was convicted in the territorial district court of swearing falsely after taking the voter's oath.[2][3] Davis appealed his conviction via a habeas corpus writ, claiming that the Idaho law requiring the oath violated his right to the free exercise of his religion as a member of the LDS Church.

Supreme Court ruling[edit]

Justice Field, writing for the Court, condemned polygamy, writing that "Few crimes are more pernicious to the best interests of society, and receive more general or more deserved punishment." He went on to echo Reynolds v. United States (1878): "However free the exercise of religion may be, it must be subordinate to the criminal laws of the country, passed with reference to actions regarded by general consent as properly the subjects of punitive legislation." He wrote by way of comparison that if a religious sect advocated fornication or human sacrifice, "swift punishment would follow the carrying into effect of its doctrines, and no heed would be given to the pretense that, as religious beliefs, their supporters could be protected in their exercise by the Constitution of the United States."

Field listed the limits that federal law placed upon the rights of United States territories to qualify voters, noted Idaho's specific prohibition of polygamists and people encouraging polygamy from the right to vote, and wrote that this was "not open to any constitutional or legal objection," as the Idaho law "simply excludes from the privilege of voting ... those who have been convicted of certain offenses".

Subsequent events[edit]

Richard Morgan wrote, "The decision became one of the principal underpinnings of what later came to be called the 'secular regulation' approach to the free exercise clause whereby no religious exemptions are required from otherwise valid secular regulations."[3]

106 years later, in Romer v. Evans (1996), the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a Colorado constitutional initiative that prevented any jurisdiction from protecting homosexual citizens from discrimination. In the dissent, Justice Scalia asked how Romer could be reconciled with Davis v. Beason:

It remains to be explained how §501 of the Idaho Revised Statutes was not an "impermissible targeting" of polygamists, but (the much more mild) Amendment 2 is an "impermissible targeting" of homosexuals. Has the Court concluded that the perceived social harm of polygamy is a "legitimate concern of government," and the perceived social harm of homosexuality is not?[4]


  1. ^ American Cultural Pluralism and Law; Jill Norgren, Serena Nanda; p. 91-92; Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006; fetched from the version on Google Book Search on 18 March 2009.
  2. ^ "Davis v. Beason (1890)" Archived 2009-02-10 at the Wayback Machine, fetched 18 March 2009.
  3. ^ a b "Davis v. Beason 130 U.S. 333 (1890)", Richard E. Morgan, 1986. Macmillan Reference USA. Fetched 18 March 2009.
  4. ^ Romer v. Evans (1996), US Supreme Court, decided May 20, 1996.

External links[edit]