City of Boerne v. Flores


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.


Did Congress exceed its Fourteenth Amendment enforcement powers by enacting the RFRA which, in part, subjected local ordinances to federal regulation?


Yes. Under the RFRA, the government is prohibited from “substantially burden[ing]” religion’s free exercise unless it must do so to further a compelling government interest, and, even then, it may only impose the least restrictive burden. The Court held that while Congress may enact such legislation as the RFRA, in an attempt to prevent the abuse of religious freedoms, it may not determine the manner in which states enforce the substance of its legislative restrictions. This, the Court added, is precisely what the RFRA does by overly restricting the states’ freedom to enforce its spirit in a manner which they deem most appropriate. With respect to this case, specifically, there was no evidence to suggest that Boerne’s historic preservation ordinance favored one religion over another, or that it was based on animus or hostility for free religious exercise.”


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.

Jeffrey S. Sutton Argued the cause on behalf of Ohio et al., as amici curiae, support the petitioner, Marci A. Hamilton Argued the cause for the petitioner
Walter E. Dellinger, III Argued the cause for the Federal respondent, Douglas Laycock Argued the cause for the respondent Flores
City Hall
City of Boerne
Rehnquist Court
521 US 507 (1997)
Feb 19, 1997
Jun 25, 1997