City of Boerne v. Flores

PETITIONER: City of Boerne

DOCKET NO.: 95-2074
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 521 US 507 (1997)
ARGUED: Feb 19, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 25, 1997

Douglas Laycock - Argued the cause for the respondent Flores
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

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.


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

Media for City of Boerne v. Flores

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 19, 1997 in City of Boerne v. Flores

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 1997 in City of Boerne v. Flores

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 95-2074, City of Boerne versus Flores will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The Saint Peter Catholic Church in Boerne, Texas was built in 1923 and it is said that replicate the mission style of that region’s earlier history that actually proved to be a problem for the Church.

The Archbishop had given approval for a remodeling plan with cause alterations to the structure to increase the size of the Church.

Because of the niche in style the Church was said by local authorities to be subject to the restrictions of a historic preservation zone, so the building permit was denied.

Now, the church, through the Archbishop, challenged the denial in Federal District Court.

The complaint contained various claims but to this point, the litigation has sent it on the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

The Act is abbreviated RFRA and then you supply a vowel to pronounce it RFRA.

The Church claims that because of the protection afforded to it by RFRA is exempt from the zoning restrictions.

The District Court found RFRA unconstitutional.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, and we now reverse the Court of Appeals.

Congress enacted RFRA in direct response to our decision in Employment Division versus Smith.

In Smith we held that a neutral generally applicable law consistent with the Free Exercise Clause need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest.

Even if it is substantially burden the religious practice.

RFRA thought to alter that rule.

RFRA requires that all laws whether federal or state must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and employ the least restrictive means of furthering that interest whenever it substantially burdens a religious practice.

Our Federal Government is one of the enumerated powers.

Congress relied on its Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power in enacting the most far reaching and substantial of RFRA's provisions of which impose its requirements from states and local government.

The question posed by this case is whether RFRA enforces the Free Exercise Clause as interpreted by Smith.

Congress’ power under Section 5 extends only to enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment.

Legislation which deters or remedies its constitutional violations can fall within the suite of Congress’ enforcement power.

However, Congress does not have the power to decree the substance of the Fourteenth Amendment’s restrictions on the states.

While the line between measures that remedy and prevent unconstitutional actions, and measures that make substantive change in the governing law is not easy to determine, and Congress must have a wide latitude in determining where it lies.

The distinction exists and it must be observed.

It must be congruent in proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied in the means adopted to that end.

The Fourteenth Amendment’s history and our case will confirm the remedial rather than substantive nature of the Enforcement Clause.

RFRA is not a proper exercise of Congress’ remedial or preventive power.

In this regard, a comparison between RFRA and the Voting Rights Act is instrictive.

In contrast to the record which confronted Congress and the judiciary in the Voting Rights cases, RFRA’s legislative record lacks examples of modern infrences of generally applicable laws passed because of religious bigotry.

Moreover, RFRA’s coverage is sweeping.

It applies to every level of government and to all rules regardless of subject matter.