Bigamy is the misdemeanor of marrying another person while continuing a former marriage. If a prior marriage is dissolved by a divorce or death of a spouse, the crime of bigamy cannot be committed.
Generally, certain defenses are allowed in bigamy cases. One of the defenses is that a spouse is missing for about seven years and the party in good faith had no knowledge of the spouse being alive. However, remarriage before a specified statutory period constitutes a crime. In some states, belief in good faith that divorce has been acheivedis a defense. However, most of the states do not take it as a defense because criminal intention is not a necessary element in the offense of bigamy.
Subsequent marriage conducted when a prior marriage is continuing; with religious sanction is not a defense in the U.S.[i]. In Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (U.S. 1878), the defendant, who was a member and believer of the Mormon Church, committed bigamy. The defendant pleaded before court that the doctrines of the church compelled him to marry twice and he acted only according to his religious belief. The defendant sought protection under First Amendment as he was practicing the doctrines in his religion. The court opined that, the defendant’s practice of bigamy was just a religious practice and not a religious belief. The court held that although the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution dictates that government cannot interfere with religious beliefs, religious practices do not merit same constitutional protection.
Bigamy conducted on the basis of religious faith cannot be accepted as a defense by courts. If a religion allows polygamy, a person who is a believer of the religion cannot claim protection under First Amendment. Bigamy is a statutory crime. The intention of a person is not an element to charge the offense. When a second marriage is committed without termination of the first one, a person can be charged of bigamy without getting into the intention of the person.
[i] United States v. Miles, 2 Utah 19 (Utah 1877)