City of Boerne v. Flores

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.


Congress’ power under § five of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, extends only to “enforcing” the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. This power is remedial. Congress does not have the power to decree the substance of the Fourteenth Amendment’s restrictions on the states. Legislation which alters the meaning of the Free Exercise Clause cannot be said to be enforcing the Clause. Congress does not enforce a constitutional right by changing what the right is. It has been given the power to enforce, not the power to determine what constitutes a constitutional violation.

Brief Fact Summary:

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.

Case Commentary:

Only the judicial branch has the authority to interpret the Constitution, and Congress cannot introduce its own interpretation as the basis for legislation and create new substantive rights in the process. This opinion essentially repudiated the reasoning in Katzenbach v. Morgan, in which the Court held that the rights that it created under the Fourteenth Amendment were a floor rather than a ceiling, and that Congress was free to add further substantive rights. The Court returned to its state action doctrine from the 19th-century Civil Rights Cases in limiting the prophylactic power of Congress. The decision’s congruence and proportionality test resonated in three areas of constitutional doctrine: Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Eleventh Amendment, and the First Amendment. The Court defended the power of its own precedent in Employment Division v. Smith, the case that had caused Congress to enact RFRA, from legislative overrule. There was also a strong federalism component to the reasoning of the majority, which sought to protect the federal government from intruding into issues traditionally handled at the state level. The Court thus saw both horizontal (judiciary-legislative) and vertical (federal-state) separation of powers concerns in the enactment of RFRA. It is important to note that RFRA was struck down only as it applies to the states. The law remains valid when applied to actions by the federal government. Congress tried to work around this decision in 2000 by using the Spending Clause to require local governments that receive federal funding to accomodate the interests of religious freedom in their land use laws under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This curbed the power of states and localities to enact historical preservation ordinances.