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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. 4035.
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Brief Fact Summary.

A church bishop was denied a building permit by the government and challenged his denial under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (the RFRA). The RFRA required the government to show a compelling state interest any time it substantially burdened religion.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

While preventative laws are sometimes appropriate remedial measures under section five of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United
States Constitution (Constitution), there must always be congruence between the means used and the ends to be achieved.


Congress enacted the RFRA pursuant to section five of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, under which Congress may pass appropriate legislation in order to “enforce the provisions of this article.” The RFRA provided that no government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if that burden results from generally applicable legislation, unless the government can demonstrate (1) a compelling state interest and (2) that the least restrictive means was used to further that interest. The statute applied to both federal and state government. A church was denied a building permit by a local zoning authority and challenged the denial under the RFRA., whereupon the authority of Congress to enact RFRA was brought into question.


Did Congress exceed its powers under section five of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution by enacting RFRA?


Yes. The judgment of the Court of Appeals sustaining the Act’s constitutionality is reversed.
Congress’ powers under section five of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution extend only to “enforcing” the provisions of the amendment. This power has been defined as “remedial.”
Legislation such as RFRA that alters the meaning of the Free Exercise Clause cannot be said to be enforcing it. Congress doesn’t enforce a right by changing what that right is.
Congress has been given the authority “to enforce” not determine what amounts to a violation of the Constitution.
RFRA is so out proportion to any supposed remedial or preventative objective that it cannot be said to be merely designed to prevent unconstitutional behavior. Instead, it appears to be an attempt to add constitutional rights.
Concurrence. Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) stated that the RFRA also violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.


Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (J. O’Connor) stated that the Employment Division Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith was wrongly decided and should be overruled.
Justice David Souter (J. Souter) stated that the Court should have dismissed the writ of certiorari as improperly granted.


This case truly involves Federalism. The RFRA as applied to the federal government was okay. It is the RFRA as applied to the States that is unconstitutional.

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