Congress' power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment extends only to "enforcing" the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. This power is remedial. Congress does not have the power to decree the substance of the Fourteenth Amendment's restrictions on the states. Legislation which alters the meaning of the Free Exercise Clause cannot be said to be enforcing the Clause. Congress does not enforce a constitutional right by changing what the right is. It has been given the power to enforce, not the power to determine what constitutes a constitutional violation.
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 included the church, the Archbishop brought suit challenging the permit denial under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). The District Court concluded that by enacting the 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 the RFRA to be constitutional.
Is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) violative under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment?
The case went to the Supreme Court of the United States on a writ of certiorari. According to the Court, the state laws to which the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) applied were not ones motivated by religious bigotry and, thus, the RFRA was not considered remedial or preventative legislation. In light of this, the Court determined that the RFRA appeared to be an attempt to invoke substantive change in constitutional protections. Thus, the Court held that the RFRA was unconstitutional because it allowed considerable Congressional intrusion into the states' general authority to regulate for the health and welfare of their citizens. The Court reversed the judgment in which the Court of Appeals sustained the RFRA's constitutionality.