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First Amendment Library:
Marci A. Hamilton


In 1993, the St. Peter Catholic Church in Boerne, Texas, applied to city officials for permission to expand the size of the church. The city's Landmark Commission denied the church's request on the grounds that the church's facade was within the city's historic district. After the city council rejected the church's appeal, the church sued in federal court, claiming that the local ordinance establishing the city's historic district was unconstitutional and violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. __ 2000bb et seq. ("RFRA"). Congress passed the RFRA in 1993 in response to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Employment Division, Dep't of Human Resources v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). In Smith, the Court held that laws not directed at religion are constitutional even if they adversely affect persons who are attempting to practice their religions. The RFRA establishes a higher standard than the decision in Smith and provides that a law may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion unless the government demonstrates that the law furthers a compelling governmental interest and that the law is the least restrictive way of furthering that interest. The trial court rejected the church's argument and ruled that the RFRA was unconstitutional because it infringed on the authority of courts to establish standards for evaluating constitutional issues. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the RFRA was constitutional because the law did not usurp the judiciary's power to interpret the Constitution. Rather, according to the appellate court, the RFRA simply created rights and protections in addition to the constitutional rights already recognized by the courts. Congress can legislate only in those areas permitted by the Constitution. In passing the RFRA, Congress relied on its power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to adopt laws designed to enforce individual rights. Although the Court had on many occasions examined Congress' power under Section 5, it had not clearly articulated the limits on that authority.