Freedom of Religion — Beliefs and Actions

Because religious faith is, arguably, the quintessential example of our right to privacy, to say nothing of its prominent place in our First Amendment, throughout our history court cases involving the free exercise of religion have been handled with great trepidation and with particular care.  One of the milestone “free exercise” religion cases, Davis v. Beason, was decided by the Supreme Court this week (Feb. 3) in 1890. 

The case arose after Congress passed legislation that made polygamy a felony and prohibited polygamists from voting.  In Idaho, where Samuel Davis lived, a similar law was passed requiring all residents voting in elections to swear they were neither bigamists nor polygamists.  Thus when Davis, a Mormon polygamist, was convicted of falsely swearing he was not one — thereby revoking his right to vote — he sued, claiming the law violated his right to the free exercise of his Mormon religion.

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Idaho law, and in his opinion Justice Stephen Field wrote, “Bigamy and polygamy are crimes by the laws of all civilized and Christian countries.  They tend to destroy the purity of marriage relations, to disturb the peace of families, to degrade woman and debase man.”

Which is more of an observation than a legal ruling, but Field added that the free exercise clause in our First Amendment was not designed to shield a person from laws that punished citizens for acts, including religious-based acts such as polygamy, that are “inimical to the peace, good order and morals of society.”  Field added that while laws “cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may [interfere] with practices.”

Field’s ruling was historic because, for the first time, a Supreme Court justice articulated what became known as the “belief-conduct distinction.”  In effect, Field ruled that, with respect to religion (or anything else), Americans are free to believe whatever they want to believe and the state can never interfere with that belief (religious belief is an especially private matter).  But when citizens act on those beliefs — when they engage in behavior based on those beliefs — then they have entered the public arena.  At that point the courts can decide whether those actions have a negative impact on the rights of others, or on the welfare — the “peace, good order and morals” — of the larger community.

The “belief-conduct” distinction became the foundation of many subsequent Supreme Court decisions, and its relevance today is unmistakable.   It is one thing to believe, based on your religious faith, that doing charitable work will help get you into Heaven.  It is another thing to believe, based on your religious faith, that killing every infidel who does not share that faith will get you into Paradise.