City of Boerne v. Flores

Following is the case brief for City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997)

Case Summary of City of Boerne v. Flores:

  • A Catholic Archbishop wanted to expand a church in Boerne, Texas.  Local ordinances prohibited the expansion, and thus the request to expand was denied.
  • The Archbishop challenged the denial, claiming in part that it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).
  • The District Court held that RFRA was unconstitutional, but the Fifth Circuit reversed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit.  It held that Congress exceeded its powers under the Fourteenth Amendment by enacting RFRA.

City of Boerne v. Flores Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio applied for a building permit to expand a church in Boerne, Texas.  The local zoning authorities, however, denied the permit based on an historic-preservation ordinance that covered the district in which the church was located.

The Archbishop then challenged the denial in Federal District Court, claiming among many arguments that the denial of the permit was a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).

Procedural History:

  • The District Court held that Congress, in enacting RFRA, exceeded its enforcement authority under the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that RFRA is constitutional.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did Congress exceed its authority to enforce the principles of the Fourteenth Amendment by enacting RFRA?  Yes.


The decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Because it sought to change substantive law through the Fourteenth Amendment, rather than remedy a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress exceeded its authority in enacting RFRA.


This case turns largely on the Court’s previous decision in Employment Div. Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), because RFRA was enacted to overrule Smith.

In the Smith case, individuals were denied public benefits because they were caught using peyote, which was a crime.  The Court held that a generally applicable law (like a criminal drug law) does not need to be reviewed under a strict scrutiny analysis, even if it has an incidental impact on religious practice.

Congress, unhappy that a religious practice was infringed in Smith, passed RFRA, which required that any Federal or State law that may infringe on religious freedom must be subjected to strict scrutiny (i.e., that the law must further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means to further that interest).  Importantly, Congress relied on the enforcement clause, § 5, of the Fourteenth Amendment to apply RFRA to the States.

With that history in mind, the Court noted that the enforcement mechanism in the Fourteenth Amendment is “remedial” in nature.  It is used to remedy past constitutional violations.  For example, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was necessary to remedy serious and widespread racial discrimination in voting.  RFRA, by contrast, remedies nothing.  There is no evidence of generally applicable laws being used to infringe on religion in any way.  Rather, RFRA is sweeping legislation that is meant to alter the meaning of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The line between what is remedial and what affirmatively changes the law can be sometimes difficult to discern.  In this case, however, it is clear that RFRA is an attempt to change constitutional protections at every level of government and is not intended to remedy any actual constitutional violation.  RFRA’s intrusion into the States’ traditional authority on health and welfare matters, as well as its conflict with separation of powers, renders the law unconstitutional.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Stevens):

RFRA violates the First Amendment because it is a “law respecting an establishment of religion.”  If the church in this case was a museum, or some other non-religious institution, then it could not use RFRA to try to get an exception to the local zoning law.  Because religion gets governmental preference under RFRA, the law violates the First Amendment.

Concurring Opinion (Scalia):

Justice Scalia, who prided himself on being the “originalist” on the Court, did not want to be outdone by Justice O’Connor’s dissent.  Thus, Justice Scalia spent his entire concurrence disagreeing with Justice O’Connor’s historical research on the standard of strict scrutiny in cases involving the free exercise of religion.  Essentially, he says that O’Connor’s historical analysis supports, rather than disagrees with, the Smith decision.  It is also important to note that Justice Scalia wrote the Smith opinion.

Dissenting Opinion (O’Connor):

The Court’s use of Smith as a yardstick to determine the constitutionality of RFRA is not proper, because Smith was wrongly decided.  Any law alleged to have infringed on religion should be strictly scrutinized.  Doing so would put the Court’s Free Exercise jurisprudence back on track with precedent.  (Absent a disagreement on Smith, Justice O’Connor states that she would have joined the majority opinion.)

Rather than reversing the Fifth Circuit, however, the Court should direct the parties to brief whether Smith is the correct understanding of the Free Exercise Clause.  After such briefing, the Court could then review RFRA’s constitutionality.

Dissenting Opinion (Souter):

In agreement with Justice O’Connor, the Court’s Smith decision needs to be fully reexamined.  This case should be dismissed as improvidently granted.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer):

As Justice O’Connor suggests, the case should be scheduled for re-argument on the question of whether Smith was correctly decided.  It is not, however, necessary to evaluate whether § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment is the proper authorization for RFRA.


City of Boerne v. Flores is a landmark decision because it struck down RFRA.  Thus, it had political significance because of the religious aspect of the legal fight.  The case, however, continues to have serious legal implications, as it was a legal “tit-for-tat” between the Court and Congress.  In short, the Court decided Smith.  To overrule Smith, Congress passed RFRA.  Now, in City of Boerne, the Court strikes down RFRA.  It is a rather fascinating study in the operation of the separation of powers under the Constitution.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments