Facts of the case
The Archbishop of San Antonio sued local zoning authorities for violating his rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), by denying him a permit to expand his church in Boerne, Texas. Boerne’s zoning authorities argued that the Archbishop’s church was located in a historic preservation district governed by an ordinance forbidding new construction, and that the RFRA was unconstitutional insofar as it sought to override this local preservation ordinance. On appeal from the Fifth Circuit’s reversal of a District Court’s finding against Archbishop Flores, the Court granted Boerne’s request for certiorari.
Why is the case important?
The Archbishop of San Antonio challenged a city ordinance of Boerne under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). The Respondent argued the ordinance is an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power under Section: 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution).
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?
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.
The court held that the RFRA contradicted vital principles necessary to maintain separation of powers and the federal balance. Congress was afforded broad powers under the Enforcement Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, in most cases, the state laws to which RFRA applied were not ones motivated by religious bigotry and, thus, the RFRA was not considered remedial or preventative legislation. The court determined that the RFRA appeared to be an attempt to invoke substantive change in constitutional protections. Thus, the court held that the RFRA was unconstitutional because it allowed considerable Congressional intrusion into the states’ general authority to regulate for the health and welfare of their citizens.
- Advocates: 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
- Petitioner: City of Boerne
- Respondent: Flores
- DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
- Location: City Hall
|Citation:||521 US 507 (1997)|
|Argued:||Feb 19, 1997|
|Decided:||Jun 25, 1997|