Congress' power under § five of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, 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.
A Catholic Archbishop applied for a building permit to enlarge a church in Boerne, Texas. The local zoning authorities denied the permit, relying on an ordinance governing historic preservation in a district which, they argued, included the church. The Archbishop questions the constitutionality of the ordinance on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. The District Court concluded that by enacting RFRA, Congress exceeded the scope of its enforcement power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. On appeal, the Court of Appeals found the RFRA to be constitutional. The case was elevated to the Supreme Court of the United States by a writ of certiorari.
Is the RFRA constitutional?
The court held that the RFRA contradicted vital principles necessary to maintain separation of powers and the federal balance. Congress was afforded broad powers under the Enforcement Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, in most cases, the state laws to which RFRA applied were not ones motivated by religious bigotry and, thus, the RFRA was not considered remedial or preventative legislation. 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.