Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether Congress could constitutionally enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which establishes a higher standard than the one pronounced by the United States Supreme Court for determining whether a law impermissibly infringes on a person's right to exercise his or her religion.


Reversed. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.


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.

Importance of Case

The Court struck down an attempt by Congress to provide sweeping protection for persons practicing their religions. In doing so, the Court appears to have held that Congress may not enact legislation that provides freedoms or rights above and beyond those set forth in the Constitution. Moreover, the Court firmly established itself as the only branch of government with the authority to interpret the Constitution.

The majority had little trouble deciding that Congress exceeded its power under Section 5 when it passed the RFRA. The rule announced by the majority is that while legislation designed to prospectively prevent violations of individual freedom can in some instances be considered "enforcement" under Section 5 (and therefore constitutional), the sweep of the legislation may not be disproportionate to the nature of the violations. In this case, the majority concluded that the RFRA swept too broadly, especially in light of the fact that there was no evidence that states were making widespread efforts to restrict religious freedom. In his concurring opinion, Justice Stevens stated that the RFRA violated the Establishment Clause by creating a governmental preference for religion. The dissenting justices complained that the Court's decision in Smith was incorrect and should not be used as a basis for evaluating the constitutionality of the RFRA.

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