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Boerne v. Flores

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Significance: In striking down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the Supreme Court declared that congressional enforcement powers in the Fourteenth Amendment may not be used to override the Court's interpretations of the Constitution.


In Sherbert v. Verner (1963), the Supreme Court required a compelling state interest as justification for any indirect restraint on religion. In Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith the Court allowed the states more discretion when balancing claims of religious freedom against the states’ interests in enacting and enforcing reasonable laws of general application. Congress responded to the controversial Smith decision with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which required states to apply the more demanding Sherbert standards. A Roman Catholic Church in Boerne, Texas, desired to replace its old and small church building, but the city had classified the structure as an historic landmark that must be preserved. The bishop sued in federal court, asserting that the 1993 act prevented the city from interfering with the church's decision to construct a new building. By a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled that the 1993 act was unconstitutional. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's opinion argued that section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power only to enforce the rights protected by the amendment, not to decree the substantive meaning of the amendment. The clear intent of the 1993 act was to veto a constitutional interpretation made by the Court. Kennedy insisted that such a challenge to the Court's proper authority is contrary to the U.S. tradition of separation of powers. Three justices dissented from the majority's continued support for the Smith decision.