Reynolds lived in the Utah territory and was married to two wives. Reynolds, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, believed that he was following the church's supportive views of polygamy.
By marrying two women, Reynolds was breaking the federal law that states that a married man or woman that marries another, single or married, is guilty of bigamy.
The law is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment, promising freedom of religion.
Reynolds was convicted in a Utah territorial district court. His conviction was then affirmed by the Utah territorial supreme courts in late 1878.
On January 6, 1879, the unanimous Waite Court ruled that the federal anti-bigamy statute does not violate the religious Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite
Furthermore, the federal law can still punish criminal activity without infringing on an individual's religious belief, similar to the same law regarding to individuals who wish to commit human sacrifice due to particular religious beliefs.
Today, the First Amendment is designed to protect freedom of religious belief, but does not protect the religious practices that are found to be punishable crimes.