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City of Boerne v. Flores

Citation. 22 Ill.521 U.S. 507, 117 S. Ct. 2157, 138 L. Ed. 2d 624, 74 FEP Cases 62 (1997)
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Brief Fact Summary.

St. Peter’s Church, located in Boerne, Texas had outgrown its structure, and wished to expand. The City of Boerne (Appellant) passed an ordinance protecting the structure of historic buildings, and historic districts. St. Peter’s Church, through the Archbishop of San Antonio, was denied a permit because the Church is located in a historic district. The Church sued in federal court to get an injunction to force the City to grant a building permit to the Church.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Congress’ power to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment is not absolute, and by enacting RFRA Congress has exceeded its powers under the Constitution by using powers normally reserved for the judiciary. Furthermore, Congress may not legislatively supersede the decisions of the Supreme Court interpreting and applying the Constitution.


St. Peter Catholic Church is located on a hill in the city of Boerne, Texas, and was originally built in 1923. Recently, because of the growth of its parish, the church decided that it was necessary to enlarge the building. A few months later, the Boerne City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the City’s Historic Landmark Commission to prepare a preservation plan with proposed historic landmarks and districts. Under the ordinance the Commission must pre-approve construction affecting historic landmarks. When St. Peter Catholic Church applied for a permit to enlarge the church, they were denied because they were situated in a historic district. The Archbishop of San Antonio then sued in federal court challenging the permit denial citing the Religious Freedom Reformation Act of 1993 (RFRA). The District Court concluded that by enacting RFRA, Congress exceeded the scope of its enforcement power under the Section: 5, which allows congress to provide for the guarantees of the Fourtee
nth Amendment through appropriate legislation. The Fifth Circuit reversed, and Appellant appealed.


Did Congress exceed its authority by enacting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993?


Yes. While Congress has the first instance to determine whether and what legislation is needed to secure the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the right to free exercise of religion, and its conclusions are entitled much deference, this deference is not unlimited. The courts retain the power to determine if Congress has exceeded its power under the Constitution. Broad as the power of Congress is under the Enforcement Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, RFRA contradicts vital principles necessary to maintain separation of powers and the federal balance. Unlike the Voting Rights Act, there is no detailed example of religious bigotry in this country in the past forty years necessitating the legislation under the appropriate legislation power of Congress provided for in Section:5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. RFRA cannot be considered remedial legislation, because it is so out of proportion to a supposed remedial or preventative object that it cannot be understood as respon
sive to, or designed to prevent, unconstitutional behavior. RFRA has such a sweeping coverage that it intrudes at ever level of government, and has no termination date nor any termination mechanism. It is the reach and scope of RFRA that distinguish it from other measures passed under Congress’ enforcement power. The stringent test RFRA demands of state laws reflect a lack of proportionality or congruence between the means adopted and the legitimate end to be achieved. RFRA intrudes further by requiring a search of judicial scrutiny of state law with the attendant likelihood of invalidation. This is a considerable intrusion into the states’ traditional prerogatives and general authority to regulate for the health and welfare of their citizens. For these reasons RFRA intrudes on the power of the judiciary and the rights of the states, and is an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional power.


Believes that the Court uses the wrong holding to decide the constitutionality of RFRA, and that therefore the decision is flawed.
Wants the parties to brief whether Employment Div., Dept of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith was correctly decided.
Believes that Section: 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment would authorize Congress to enact RFRA.
Concurrence. Believes that RFRA is a law respecting an establishment of religion that violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. Whether or not the Church would prevail under RFRA is immaterial because the statute has provided the Church with a legal weapon that no atheist or agnostic can obtain. The government cannot prefer the existence of religion to no religion, just as it cannot prefer any religion over another.


This case presents the antithesis of the Voting Rights Act case of City of Rome. The key difference between these two cases is that there is no evidence of discrimination presented in this case; while in City of Rome there was evidence of disenfranchisement of African-American voters in the state of Georgia. If there was evidence similar to City of Rome, it is likely that the Court would have reached a different result in this case. This case also shows Congressional limits on legislation. It shows that the Court feels it’s important to protect the powers of the states, and the power of the judiciary as protected by the balance of powers in the Constitution. This case shows that the enforcement powers of the individual amendments are subservient to the balance of powers explicit in the Constitution.

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