The provision of the First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," has given rise to comparatively little litigation in the federal courts.10
In Reynolds v. United States11 the meaning of the prohibition is carefully considered and the conclusion, unavoidable from a practical viewpoint, reached that the prohibition does not prevent Congress from penalizing the commission of acts which, though justified by the tenets of a religious sect, are socially or politically disturbing, or are generally reprobated by the moral sense of civilized communities. Thus, in this case, it was held that polygamy might be declared illegal and criminal, though declared proper and even meritorious by the Mormon Religion.
6 174 U. S. 1; 19 Sup. Ct. Rep. 580; 43 L. ed. 873.
7 3 Pet. 413: 7 L. ed. 724.
8 103 U. S. 40: 26 L. ed. 317. 9 103 U. S. 554; 26 L. ed. 486.
11 98 U. S. 145; 25 L. ed. 244.
In Davis v. Beason12 the subject was again considered, the court saying: "It was never intended or supposed that the Amendment could be invoked as a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order and morals of society. "With man's relations to his Maker and the obligations he may think they impose, and the manner in which an expression shall be made by him of his beliefs on those subjects, no interference can be permitted, provided always the laws of society, designed to secure its peace and prosperity, and the morals of its people, are not interfered with. 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."
Under provisions of the state constitutions prohibiting the creation of state religious establishments, the appropriations of money for sectarian purposes, and in general the infringement of religious liberty and equality, many cases have arisen in which American doctrines of Church and State have been discussed. A consideration of these cases will not be appropriate in this treatise, but it may be said that a peculiarly valuable examination of the doctrines governing the attitude of the courts in dealing with property claimed by two or more contesting religious bodies, is that contained in the opinion of the Supreme Court in Watson v. Jones.13