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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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30-60 minutes
  • Religious Liberty
  • Supreme Court
  • 9-12
  • College/University

Can a religious group claim First Amendment protection for a practice that has been outlawed by Congress, if the practice is a part of its religious beliefs?

It's 1876. The Civil War is over, Reconstruction is underway, and Western territories are vying to attract settlers and join the Union. Among these is Utah, a territory founded on a settlement of Latter-day Saints, known as Mormons, fleeing conflict with communities in the East and Midwest.

Yet Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant are wary of granting Utah statehood. One source of conflict is the Mormon Church’s control of the territorial legislature. Another is the Mormon practice of polygamy. Church doctrine commands men to marry more than one woman, but the Morrill Act of 1862 specifically outlaws it. When Grant sends federal troops to arrest men practicing polygamy, church leaders such as George Q. Cannon still encourage congregants to follow God’s law. Congress is outraged at the disregard for federal law; the Mormons believe they are subjects of religious persecution.

Finally, Cannon and the U.S. attorney general strike a deal to end the stalemate and agree to send a test case to the courts.

Take the role of a historical figure below and find evidence to argue your case.

  1. President Ulysses S. Grant
    President Grant believed practicing polygamy was part of a larger effort to elevate church doctrine and governance over the federal government.
    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

    President Ulysses S. Grant

    Polygamy is part of a larger effort to elevate church doctrine and governance over the federal government, which is treason and must be stopped.

    "In Utah there still remains a remnant of barbarism, repugnant to civilization, to decency, and to the laws of the United States. … Neither polygamy nor any other violation of existing statutes will be permitted within the territory of the United States."

    — Third annual address to Congress, 1871
  2. Francis Lieber, professor and social commentator

    Religious beliefs must not interfere with public good. Monogamy is the basis of civilized society; polygamy is the basis of barbarism.

    Monogamy “is one of the pre-existing conditions of our existence as civilized white men, as much as our being moral entities is a pre-existing condition of the idea of law, or of the possibility of a revelation. Strike it out, and you destroy our very being."

    — “The Mormons,” an article in Putnam’s Monthly, 1855
  3. Congressman George Q. Cannon
    This portrait of George Q. Cannon, circa 1870-80, was taken while he was Utah's territorial delegate to Congress.
    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

    George Reynolds, LDS church member and lawsuit defendant

    Polygamy is a private religious belief. Even though it is against federal law, it is God’s law and morally acceptable. Therefore, polygamy is protected by the First Amendment.

    Polygamy “is an artificial crime, created by legislative enactment, and involving, which practiced as a religious duty, no moral guilt."

    — His lawyer’s argument to the Supreme Court, 1878

  • Is there a difference between a religious belief and practice?
  • How do you decide if a religious belief or action is a private or public matter?
  • What if a religious practice causes physical harm to others? Psychological harm?
  • Who gets to decide if a religious practice is harmful or not?
  • Does it matter if the religious practice is tied to a political agenda?

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