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The Mormon Church is a religious body founded in 1830 in Fayette, New York, by Joseph Smith. It is also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church. There are 7.7 million Mormons worldwide. Approximately two-thirds reside in the United States, with the highest concentration in the western states, especially Utah. The church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, encountered legal difficulties during its early years because of its practice of Polygamy and its opposition to the use of Common Law as legal precedent. The church's differences with the U.S. government led to armed conflict in the late 1800s.
Joseph Smith based his teachings on his translation of hieroglyphic messages revealed to him on several golden plates. Smith's translation of these divine messages is known as the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon and the Bible form the basis of Mormon belief.
During the early 1800s, Smith and his followers settled in Kirtland, Ohio, and Jackson County, Missouri, where they were persecuted because of their beliefs. They moved to Illinois and helped establish the town of Nauvoo, where the church prospered. However, local residents became inflamed over rumors that Smith and his followers were practicing polygamy, or plural marriage. Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested and taken to Carthage, the county seat. On June 27, 1844, they were both shot and killed by a group of townspeople.
Smith was succeeded by Brigham Young, the head of the church's Council of the Twelve Apostles. In 1846 Young organized and directed church members to follow him from Nauvoo to the Great Salt Basin in the Utah Territory. They settled there and established the headquarters of the church in Salt Lake City.
In Utah the Mormon Church prospered and grew. In addition to leading the church, Young became provisional governor of the Utah Territory in 1849. In that capacity he and the other members of the government, most of whom were Mormons, defied the U.S. government by rejecting common law as valid legal precedent in Utah. Common law, as distinct from statutory law, is English precedent adopted by U.S. courts. Over time, common law became part of U.S. Jurisprudence except where it was expressly abrogated. Although Young patterned the structure of Utah's territorial government after the other state governments, with executive, legislative, and judicial branches, he believed that the United States should abandon all vestiges of English tradition. According to Young, the application of common law allowed judges too much latitude to impose standards that did not comport with public will.
Young's opposition to the application of common law reached its nadir over the issue of polygamy. By the mid-1800s, the Mormon Church had acknowledged polygamy as one of its tenets. Mormon teaching of the time held that men were obligated to have multiple wives. Common law provides that marriage to more than one living husband or wife is a felony and that any marriages other than the first are void.
When President Millard Fillmore assigned three federal judges to the Utah Territory in the 1850s, Young became concerned that the new judges would impose common-law precedent. He attempted to blunt their impact by urging the legislature to prohibit judges from using common-law precedent in Utah. On January 14, 1854, the legislature passed a bill that prohibited any law from being read, cited, or adopted in Utah unless it had been enacted by the legislature or the governor. This bill directly contravened the Organic Act of Utah of 1850 (9 Stat. 453) by which the U.S. Congress created the Utah Territory. The act gave the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal district courts of the territory both common-law and Equity jurisdiction and established that the laws of the United States applied in the territory. In 1856 the Territorial Supreme Court held that the Organic Act extended common law over the Territory of Utah and that the legislature violated the Organic Act when it forbade the use of common law in Utah (People v. Moroni Green, 1 Utah 11 ).
Tensions continued to mount between Mormons and the federal government. In May 1857 President James Buchanan dispatched 2,500 U.S. Army troops to Utah to remove Young from office and enforce federal authority. Anticipating the federal troops' arrival, a group of angry Mormons joined forces with a group of Paiute Indians who attacked and killed 120 settlers traveling through the territory in September 1857. Mormon leaders feared that the attack, known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, would lead to further reprisals by the federal government. They sent sympathetic church members to destroy the Army's supplies, thereby delaying the troops' arrival. The Mormons' resistance came to be known as the Utah War. By the time the troops arrived in the summer of 1858, tensions had eased considerably, and under a negotiated settlement, troops were stationed outside Salt Lake City without incident.
The Mormon Church's resistance to the application of common law continued through the late 1800s. A number of cases reached the Territorial Supreme Court, which repeatedly affirmed that common law is valid in the territory. (See Murphy v. Carter, 1 Utah 17 , and Godebe v. Salt Lake City, 1 Utah 68 ). In First National Bank of Utah v. Kinner, 1 Utah 100 (1873), the court held that the people of the Utah territory had tacitly agreed to the application of common law. In 1878 the U.S. Supreme Court settled the question of whether the common-law prohibition of polygamy applied in the territory. In Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. (8 Otto) 145, 25 L. Ed. 244, the plaintiff argued that the common-law prohibition of polygamy was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. The Court disagreed and held that religious freedom does not encompass the practice of polygamy and that laws prohibiting the practice are constitutional. The Court stated that to allow Mormons to practice plural marriage "would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances."
By the 1890s the Mormon Church had officially abandoned the practice of plural marriage. In 1896 Utah became a state, and in 1898 the legislature passed a measure that declared that the common law "shall be the rule of decision in all courts of this state" (The Revised Statutes of the State of Utah, § 2488). The common law continues to carry the force of precedent in Utah, except for the common law of crimes, which the legislature abolished in 1973 (Utah Code Ann. § 76-1-105; repealed, Utah Code Ann. § 68-2-3; replaced by Utah Code Ann. § 68-3-1).
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Eliason, Eric A., ed. 2001. Mormons and Mormonism: An Introduction to an American World Religion. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.
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Mauro, Tony. 2003. "Mormon Land Dispute Tests First Amendment." Legal Times 26 (April 28): 11.
Ostling, Richard, and Joan K. Ostling. 2000. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. San Francisco: Harper-SanFrancisco.