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Potter v. Murray City

Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff, a police officer in Utah, was fired for practicing polygamy. He brought suit claiming that laws prohibiting plural marriage were invalid.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. States may show a compelling interest to uphold a law by demonstrating that the value the law protects has historically been widely held by the people.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

However, the Court held that it must appear either that the State does not deny the free exercise of religious belief by its requirement, or that there is a state interest of sufficient magnitude to override the interest claiming protection under the Free Exercise Clause.

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Facts. Plaintiff, a former police officer in Utah, was terminated by the city after it learned that he practiced plural marriage. Plaintiff sought monetary damages against the City, the Chief of Police, and the Civil Service Commission. He also sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the State, its Governor, and Attorney General to determine that laws prohibiting plural marriage were invalid and to enjoin their enforcement.

Issue. Should the constitutional right to privacy be extended to protect polygamous marriages?

Held. Neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Right to Privacy prohibits the State from legislating against polygamy.
The United States Supreme Court previously affirmed a criminal conviction of a Mormon for practicing polygamy over argument that it violated the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion. Plaintiff argues this precedent is no longer controlling because later cases have effectively overruled its holding.

It is stipulated that the Plaintiff’s practice of plural marriage is the result of a good faith religious belief, and the State defendants have not presented any evidence that monogamy is superior to polygamy. Nonetheless, the state has an undeniable interest in protecting the widely held values of its people. Because it is a fundamental value, the state is justified by a compelling interest to uphold its ban on plural marriage.

Plaintiff also argues that the Utah laws violate the constitutional right to privacy and have fallen into desuetude. The court finds no authority for extended the right of privacy so far as to protect polygamous marriages. In regards to desuetude, the showing of minimum numbers of prosecutions does not establish abandonment. Polygamy has been prohibited since Utah’s inception, therefore the showing made by Plaintiff did not establish the enforcement of an obsolete or empty law whose function has passed.

Discussion. Because a ban on plural marriage is “inextricably woven into the fabric of our society,” the State is justified by a compelling interest to uphold this ban.

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