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City of Boerne v. Flores

    Brief Fact Summary. Congress’ enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 was held by the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) to be an excessive use of power under Section:5 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. While preventive rules are sometimes appropriate remedial measures, there must be a congruence between the means used and the ends sought to be achieved. The appropriateness of remedial measures must be considered in light of the evil presented.

    Facts. A decision by local zoning authorities to deny a church a building permit was challenged under the RFRA. The Act’s stated purposes are: “(1) to restore the compelling interest test and to guarantee its application in all cases where the free exercise of religion is substantially burdened; (2) to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” The Act forbids the government from “substantially burdening” a person’s exercise of religion unless the government can demonstrate that the burden “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling state interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that state interest.” Specifically, this case calls into question the authority of Congress to enact the RFRA.

    Issue. Whether the RFRA is a proper exercise of Congress’ Section:5 power to “enforce” by “appropriate legislation” the constitutional guarantee that no state shall deprive any person of “life, liberty, or property without the due process of law” nor deny any person “equal protection of the laws?”

    Held. No. Judgment of the lower court reversed. Congress’ power under Section:5 extends only to “enforcing” the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. While preventive rules are sometimes appropriate remedial measures, there must be a congruence between the means used and the ends to be achieved. The appropriateness of remedial measures must be considered in light of the evil presented. The RFRA’s legislative records lacks examples of modern instances of generally applicable laws passed because of religious bigotry. Further, the RFRA cannot be considered remedial, preventive legislation. Rather, it appears to attempt a substantive change in constitutional protections. Preventive measures prohibiting certain types of laws may be appropriate when there is reason to believe that many of the laws affected have a significant likelihood of being unconstitutional. Remedial legislation under Section:5 should be adapted to the wrong which the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution was intended to protec
    t against. The RFRA is not so confined. The stringent test the RFRA demands of state laws reflects a lack of proportionality between the means adopted and the legitimate end to be achieved. Therefore, the RFRA is not a proper exercise of Congress’ Section:5 power to “enforce” by “appropriate legislation” the constitutional guarantee that no state shall deprive any person of “life, liberty, or property without the due process of law” nor deny any person “equal protection of the laws.”

    Discussion. This decision disavowed any power on Congress’ power to confer new substantive rights not derived from prior decisions of the Court interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, this case is important because it illustrates that Congress does not have unlimited power to create new substantive rights. Rather, it must look to the Court’s interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment to find such rights.


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