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Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to prohibit federal and state governments from passing laws that substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.
The act was intended to affect any law that substantially burdened religious practice, including generally applicable laws not targeted at religious activity. The RFRA was passed in response to a United States Supreme Court decision upholding a law that prohibited peyote, despite its use in religious rituals, under a generally applicable criminal statute.
Later, a Texas church was denied a permit to expand its sanctuary due to local laws prohibiting the alteration of historical landmarks. The church challenged the zoning ordinance under the RFRA, claiming the ordinance unduly burdened the church’s exercise of its religion.
The United States Supreme Court ultimately took up the case to determine whether Congress had sufficient authority to pass the RFRA using its power to enforce the equal-protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that Congress lacked the power to pass the RFRA.
The enforcement authority granted under the Fourteenth Amendment enabled Congress only to prevent or remedy the violation of a constitutional right. What Congress did with the RFRA, however, was an attempt to redefine a constitutional right. That interpretive role belongs solely to the judiciary. For that reason, the RFRA was struck down as unconstitutional.