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City of Boerne v. Flores

    Citation. 521 U.S. 507, 117 S. Ct. 2157, 138 L. Ed. 2d 624, 1997 U.S.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Archbishop of San Antonio challenged a city ordinance of Boerne under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). The Respondent argued the ordinance is an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power under Section: 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Congressional action under Section: 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution may be remedial or preventative in nature, but it may only enforce constitutional rights, not create substantive rights.


    Facts. After the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) narrowed the scope of the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), Congress passed the RFRA, seeking specifically to overturn the test developed in Smith. Specifically, the RFRA prohibits government from “substantially burdening” the exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates (1) a compelling government interest and (2) is the least restrictive means of achieving the interest.

    Issue. Can Congress create a substantive right under Section: 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution?

    Held. No. Reversed and remanded.
    The ability to create substantive constitutional rights under Section: 5 of the constitution would destroy the Constitution’s status as the supreme law of the land and relegate it to mere legal code.
    The Supreme Court acknowledges remedial laws may also be preventative legislation, but says there must be congruence between the means and the ends to be achieved and proportionality to a remedial or preventative objective.

    Dissent. Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (J. O’Connor) and David Souter (J. Souterg) dissented in part, largely due to their unhappiness with the Smith decision, which the majority upholds as precedent

    Discussion. Boerne v. Flores slows down the expansion of Congressional authority under Section: 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The Supreme Court holds that Congress still has authority to “enforce” by passing legislation affecting otherwise constitutional state statutes, but it may only do so in a remedial or preventative manner. Congress may not create a substantive constitutional right.

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