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City of Boerne v. Flores

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

A decision by local zoning authorities to deny a church a building permit was challenged under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

There must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end. Lacking such a connection, legislation may become substantive in operation and effect.a


The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prohibits government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability unless the government can demonstrate the burden is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling government interest. RFRA applies to all federal and state law, and the implementation of that law. Situated on a hill in the city of Boerne, Texas is St. Peter Catholic Church. The church’s structure replicates the mission style of the region’s earlier history. The church seats about 230 worshippers, a number too small for its growing parish. It applied for a building permit so construction to enlarge the church could proceed. City authorities, relying on its ordinance and the designation of a historic district, denied the application.


Did the local zoning authorities violate the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 when it denied a church a building permit?


No, because the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 cannot be considered remedial, preventive legislation and is so out of proportion to a supposed remedial or preventive object that it cannot be understood as responsive to, or designed to prevent, unconstitutional behavior. It appears, instead, to attempt a substantive change in constitutional protections, which is not permitted in case like this.


RFRA’s sweeping coverage ensures its intrusion at every level of government, displacing laws and prohibiting official actions of almost every description and regardless of subject matter. Its restrictions apply to every agency and official of the federal, state, and local governments. RFRA applies to all federal and state law, statutory or otherwise, whether adopted before of after its enactment. It has no termination date or termination mechanism. Any law is subject to challenge at any time by any individual who alleges a substantial burden on his free exercise of religion. Moreover, the substantial costs RFRA exacts, both in practical terms of imposing a heavy litigation burden on the States and in terms of curtailing their traditional general regulatory power, far exceed any pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct. RFRA is not designed to identify and counteract state laws likely to be unconstitutional because of their treatment of religion.

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