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City of Boerne v. Flores

Citation. 521 U.S. 507 (1997)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The City of Boerne’s Historic Landmark Commission denied the Catholic Church of Boerne’s application to expand the church building. The Church sued the City, arguing that the denial was a violation of RFRA.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

RFRA is an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s power under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Remedial or prophylactic legislation must show “congruence and proportionality.”


Boerne, Texas has a Catholic Church built in 1923. Its parish grew and could no longer fit everyone, and so it got permission from the Archbishop to enlarge the building. The City of Boerne passed an ordinance authorizing the Historic Landmark Commission to develop a preservation plan for landmarks, under which construction affecting landmarks must be preapproved. The Commission denied the application to expand the Boerne church. The Archbishop brought this lawsuit against the City arguing that the denial of their application was a violation of RFRA. The issue became distilled to whether RFRA is unconstitutional.


Is RFRA a proper exercise of Congress’s power under the Fourteenth Amendment?


No, RFRA is not a constitutional exercise of Congress’s powers under the Fourteenth Amendment.


Justice O’Connor (with Breyer)

RFRA was passed in response to Employment Division v. Smith, but then the Court uses Smith as a measure to judge the constitutionality of RFRA. We should reevaluate Smith and this case in light of the passage of RFRA to be more consistent in our Free Exercise Clause jurisprudence.


Congress passed RFRA in response to the Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendmentis a positive grant of legislative power, but it is not unlimited. It is limited to enforcing its own provisions, but does not entail determining what constitutes a constitutional violation. The nature of the Fourteenth Amendmentis remedial.

Preventative rules can be remedial, but there must be a congruence between means used and ends to be achieved, as well as an evaluation of the importance of the evil to be remedied.

In this case, there are no compelling instances of religious discrimination that compel a measure like RFRA. RFRA is overly burdensome to the states. This makes it appear more like a change of constitutional protections, which is outside the scope of Congressional power.

Therefore, RFRA is unconstitutional as an exercise of the Fourteenth Amendment.

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