OCTOBER TERM, 1996
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit
No. 95-2074. Argued February 19, 1997—Decided June 25, 1997
Respondent, the Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, applied for a building permit to enlarge a church in Boerne, Texas. When local zoning authorities denied the permit, relying on an ordinance governing historic preservation in a district which, they argued, included the church, the Archbishop brought this suit challenging the permit denial under, inter alia, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). The District Court concluded that by enacting RFRA Congress exceeded the scope of its enforcement power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court certified its order for interlocutory appeal, and the Fifth Circuit reversed, finding RFRA to be constitutional.
Held: RFRA exceeds Congress' power. Pp. 512-536. (a) Congress enacted RFRA in direct response to Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872, in which the Court upheld against a free exercise challenge a state law of general applicability criminalizing peyote use, as applied to deny unemployment benefits to Native American Church members who lost their jobs because of such use. In so ruling, the Court declined to apply the balancing test of Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398, which asks whether the law at issue substantially burdens a religious practice and, if so, whether the burden is justified by a compelling government interest. RFRA prohibits "[g]overnment" from "substantially burden[ing]" a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability unless the government can demonstrate the burden "(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that . . . interest." 42 U. S. C. § 2000bb-1. RFRA's mandate applies to any branch of Federal or State Government, to all officials, and to other persons acting under color of law. § 2000bb-2(1). Its universal coverage includes "all Federal and State law, and the implementation of that law, whether statutory or otherwise, and whether adopted before or after [RFRA's enactment]." § 2000bb-3(a). Pp. 512-516. (b) In imposing RFRA's requirements on the States, Congress relied on the Fourteenth Amendment, which, inter alia, guarantees that no State shall make or enforce any law depriving any person of "life, lib-
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