Did you know that Boerne, Texas (pronounced “Bur-nee”) is famous in law for its contributions to limiting the power of Congress subjectively defining “religious freedom” and impacting regulations about historic preservation?
Yup! It’s true! Not bad for a little town, huh? Here’s the famous story of how the city of Boerne took down the Catholic Church, made history (in more ways than one), and stopped the United States Congress from overreaching their power.
As with almost all legal cases, a precedent was already set when it came to government ruling on acts involved with religious freedoms. Before we get into what happened in Boerne, let’s take a moment to establish just what exactly that precedent was.
In 1990, there was a case, Employment Division v. Smith, in which the state of Oregon denied unemployment benefits to Native American members of a church who were fired for smoking peyote. Makes sense right? Well, not exactly. They were members of a Native American church and had only smoked the drug while taking part in a religious ceremony. They went to court against the Employment Division of Oregon because, under our First Amendment rights, they only consumed the drug as part of a religious ritual and should not be condemned for freely practicing their religion.
If that’s a difficult position to understand, think of it in terms of Christianity in the United States. Say the roles were reversed, and Christianity wasn’t the predominant religion in the states, but rather a small sect like this Native American Church. If several Christians were fired for drinking wine or burning incense as a part of a traditional service, and then denied the unemployment benefits they’re entitled to by the state, they would probably sue too.
Regardless, the court ruled that no exception would be made for the illegality of peyote because the law prohibiting peyote affects everyone equally under the Constitution. Congress was furious and disagreed strongly with the court’s decision. This prompted them to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which banned federal and state governments from burdening a person’s free exercise of religion, despite what general laws might say.
Back In Boerne
Three years later, Congress’ new act got put to the ultimate test. In Boerne, the local parish had grown too large for its building and needed an expansion on God’s house. His Excellency, The Most Reverend Patrick Flores, Archbishop of San Antonio, followed proper procedure and filed for a permit asking the city to allow the Church to expand its building. However, the building was deeply integrated into the historic downtown district of Old Boerne, and the city saw no way the structure could be expanded without destroying the historical landmark (aka the building itself); they denied the Church their permit.
As anyone intimately familiar with the Catholic Church knows, this decision wasn’t taken positively by His Excellency, Patrick Flores. He took the city to District Court, claiming that the zoning ordinance preventing building on historical landmarks directly violated the RFRA. Much to his chagrin, the District Court found the RFRA to be unconstitutional, in and of itself, and decided to uphold the decision of Boerne. Well, what do you do when Dad says no? Ask Mom, of course! Funded by the Catholic Church, Archbishop Flores challenged the zoning ordinance under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act all the way up to the Supreme Court. In what seemed like a “best two out of three” game, Boerne won the decision of the District Court and lost the decision of the Court of Appeals — sending this case all the way to the top, the United States Supreme Court.
Cases that go to the Supreme Court are a select few and must be an overarching decision that affects the entire population of the United States and not just the people of a select city, like Boerne. So, what was the generalized issue that the court met to decide on 22 years ago on June 25th?
Does the 14th Amendment allow for Congress to pass acts that override the Supreme Court’s interpretation of a constitutional right?
Absolutely not. In fact, it was determined that the RFRA was a power grab on Congress’ part to overturn Supreme Court legal definitions they disagreed with. Congress’ responsibility is to uphold, prevent, or remedy constitutional rights (or the violations of) but they do not have the authority to define constitutional rights for themselves. That is the duty and burden of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court struck down the Court of Appeals and declared the RFRA unconstitutional. This means that the Catholic Church lost and the city of Boerne keeps its historic downtown in original condition. This case became famous for the Court’s castigation of Congress. The case also became a metaphorical landmark for cities looking to preserve their physical history over time through the use of permit restrictions and zoning ordinances.
Live With The Underdogs
That’s the story of how the United States government helped a little town in Texas with a population of 6,000 (at the time in 1997) fight the Catholic Church to keep their Historic Downtown the accurate tourist attraction that it still is today.
Are you looking to live among legal heroes in a city that is studied in every AP Government class across the nation? We thought so. Contact UrbanLUX Builders to begin building and customizing your own home in the lively, vivacious, significant town of Boerne, Texas today.