521 U.S. 507 (1997)

Argued February 19, 1997

Decided June 25, 1997


Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the fifth circuit


Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, and in all but Part III-A-1 of which Scalia, J., joined. Stevens, J., filed a concurring opinion. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, in which Stevens, J., joined. O'Connor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer, J., joined except as to a portion of Part I. Souter, J., and Breyer, J., filed dissenting opinions


Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.


A decision by local zoning authorities to deny a church a building permit was challenged under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq. The case calls into question the authority of Congress to enact RFRA. We conclude the statute exceeds Congress' power.


Situated on a hill in the city of Boerne, Texas, some 28 miles northwest of San Antonio, is St. Peter Catholic Church. Built in 1923, the church's structure replicates the mission style of the region's earlier history. The church seats about 230 worshippers, a number too small for its growing parish. Some 40 to 60 parishioners cannot be accommodated at some Sunday masses. In order to meet the needs of the congregation the Archbishop of San Antonio gave permission to the parish to plan alterations to enlarge the building.


A few months later, the Boerne City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the city's Historic Landmark Commission to prepare a preservation plan with proposed historic landmarks and districts. Under the ordinance, the Commission must preapprove construction affecting historic landmarks or buildings in a historic district.


Soon afterwards, the Archbishop applied for a building permit so construction to enlarge the church could proceed. City authorities, relying on the ordinance and the designation of a historic district (which, they argued, included the church), denied the application. The Archbishop brought this suit challenging the permit denial in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. 877 F. Supp. 355 (1995).


The complaint contained various claims, but to this point the litigation has centered on RFRA and the question of its constitutionality. The Archbishop relied upon RFRA as one basis for relief from the refusal to issue the permit. 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. 73 F. 3d 1352 (1996). We granted certiorari, 519 U. S. ___ (1996), and now reverse.


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The Act's stated purposes are:


"(1) to restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972) and to guarantee its application in all cases where free exercise of religion is substantially burdened; and


"(2) to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government." 2000bb(b).


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 compelling governmental interest." 2000bb-1. The Act's mandate applies to any "branch, department, agency, instrumentality, and official (or other person acting under color of law) of the United States," as well as to any "State, or . . . subdivision of a State." 2000bb 2(1). The Act's universal coverage is confirmed in 2000bb 3(a), under which RFRA "applies to all Federal and State law, and the implementation of that law, whether statutory or otherwise, and whether adopted before or after [RFRA's enactment]." In accordance with RFRA's usage of the term, we shall use "state law" to include local and municipal ordinances.


Under our Constitution, the Federal Government is one of enumerated powers. McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 405 (1819); see also The Federalist No. 45, p. 292 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (J. Madison). The judicial authority to determine the constitutionality of laws, in cases and controversies, is based on the premise that the "powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the constitution is written." Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 176 (1803).


Congress relied on its Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power in enacting the most far reaching and substantial of RFRA's provisions, those which impose its requirements on the States. See Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, S. Rep. No. 103-111, pp. 13-14 (1993) (Senate Report); H. R. Rep. No. 103-88, p. 9 (1993) (House Report). The Fourteenth Amendment provides, in relevant part:


"Section 1. . . . No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


The parties disagree over whether RFRA is a proper exercise of Congress' 5 power "to enforce" by "appropriate legislation" the constitutional guarantee that no State shall deprive any person of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" nor deny any person "equal protection of the laws."


Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."


In defense of the Act respondent contends, with support from the United States as amicus, that RFRA is permissible enforcement legislation. Congress, it is said, is only protecting by legislation one of the liberties guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, the free exercise of religion, beyond what is necessary under Smith. It is said the congressional decision to dispense with proof of deliberate or overt discrimination and instead concentrate on a law's effects accords with the settled understanding that 5 includes the power to enact legislation designed to prevent as well as remedy constitutional violations. It is further contended that Congress' 5 power is not limited to remedial or preventive legislation.


All must acknowledge that 5 is "a positive grant of legislative power" to Congress, Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641, 651 (1966). In Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339, 345 -346 (1880), we explained the scope of Congress' 5 power in the following broad terms:


"Whatever legislation is appropriate, that is, adapted to carry out the objects the amendments have in view, whatever tends to enforce submission to the prohibitions they contain, and to secure to all persons the enjoyment of perfect equality of civil rights and the equal protection of the laws against State denial or invasion, if not prohibited, is brought within the domain of congressional power."


Legislation which deters or remedies constitutional violations can fall within the sweep of Congress' enforcement power even if in the process it prohibits conduct which is not itself unconstitutional and intrudes into "legislative spheres of autonomy previously reserved to the States." Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 455 (1976). For example, the Court upheld a suspension of literacy tests and similar voting requirements under Congress' parallel power to enforce the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment, see U. S. Const., Amdt. 15, 2, as a measure to combat racial discrimination in voting, South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 308 (1966), despite the facial constitutionality of the tests under Lassiter v. Northampton County Bd. of Elections, 360 U.S. 45 (1959). We have also concluded that other measures protecting voting rights are within Congress' power to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, despite the burdens those measures placed on the States. South Carolina v. Katzenbach, supra (upholding several provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965); Katzenbach v. Morgan, supra (upholding ban on literacy tests that prohibited certain people schooled in Puerto Rico from voting); Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970) (upholding 5 year nationwide ban on literacy tests and similar voting requirements for registering to vote); City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156, 161 (1980) (upholding 7 year extension of the Voting Rights Act's requirement that certain jurisdictions preclear any change to a " `standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting' "); see also James Everard's Breweries v. Day, 265 U.S. 545 (1924) (upholding ban on medical prescription of intoxicating malt liquors as appropriate to enforce Eighteenth Amendment ban on manufacture,sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes).


It is also true, however, that "[a]s broad as the congressional enforcement power is, it is not unlimited." Oregon v. Mitchell, supra, at 128 (opinion of Black, J.). In assessing the breadth of 5's enforcement power, we begin with its text. Congress has been given the power "to enforce" the "provisions of this article." We agree with respondent, of course, that Congress can enact legislation under 5 enforcing the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. The "provisions of this article," to which 5 refers, include the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Congress' power to enforce the Free Exercise Clause follows from our holding in Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303 (1940), that the "fundamental concept of liberty embodied in [the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause] embraces the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment." See also United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787, 789 (1966) (there is "no doubt of the power of Congress to enforce by appropriate criminal sanction every right guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).


Congress' power under 5, however, extends only to "enforc[ing]" the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court has described this power as "remedial," South Carolina v. Katzenbach, supra, at 326. The design of the Amendment and the text of 5 are inconsistent with the suggestion that Congress has 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. Were it not so, what Congress would be enforcing would no longer be, in any meaningful sense, the "provisions of [the Fourteenth Amendment]."


While the line between measures that remedy or prevent unconstitutional actions and measures that make a substantive change in the governing law is not easy to discern, and Congress must have wide latitude in determining where it lies, the distinction exists and must be observed. There must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end. Lacking such a connection, legislation may become substantive in operation and effect. History and our case law support drawing the distinction, one apparent from the text of the Amendment.


The Fourteenth Amendment's history confirms the remedial, rather than substantive, nature of the Enforcement Clause. The Joint Committee on Reconstruction of the 39th Congress began drafting what would become the Fourteenth Amendment in January 1866. The objections to the Committee's first draft of the Amendment, and the rejection of the draft, have a direct bearing on the central issue of defining Congress' enforcement power.


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Recent cases have continued to revolve around the question of whether 5 legislation can be considered remedial. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, supra, we emphasized that "[t]he constitutional propriety of [legislation adopted under the Enforcement Clause] must be judged with reference to the historical experience . . . it reflects." 383 U.S., at 308 . There we upheld various provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finding them to be "remedies aimed at areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant," id., at 315, and necessary to "banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting, which has infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century," id., at 308. We noted evidence in the record reflecting the subsisting and pervasive discriminatory--and therefore unconstitutional--use of literacy tests. Id., at 333-334. The Act's new remedies, which used the administrative resources of the Federal Government, included the suspension of both literacy tests and, pending federal review, all new voting regulations in covered jurisdictions, as well as the assignment of federal examiners to list qualified applicants enabling those listed to vote. The new, unprecedented remedies were deemed necessary given the ineffectiveness of the existing voting rights laws, see id., at 313-315, and the slow costly character of case by case litigation, id., at 328.


After South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the Court continued to acknowledge the necessity of using strong remedial and preventive measures to respond to the widespread and persisting deprivation of constitutional rights resulting from this country's history of racial discrimination. See Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S., at 132 ("In enacting the literacy test ban . . . Congress had before it a long history of the discriminatory use of literacy tests to disfranchise voters on account of their race") (opinion of Black, J.); id., at 147 (Literacy tests "have been used at times as a discriminatory weapon against some minorities, not only Negroes but Americans of Mexican ancestry, and American Indians") (opinion of Douglas, J.); id., at 216 ("Congress could have determined that racial prejudice is prevalent throughout the Nation, and that literacy tests unduly lend themselves to discriminatory application, either conscious or unconscious") (opinion of Harlan, J.); id., at 235 ("[T]here is no question but that Congress could legitimately have concluded that the use of literacy tests anywhere within the United States has the inevitable effect of denying the vote to members of racial minorities whose inability to pass such tests is the direct consequence of previous governmental discrimination in education") (opinion of Brennan, J.); id., at 284 ("[N]ationwide [suspension of literacy tests] may be reasonably thought appropriate when Congress acts against an evil such as racial discrimination which in varying degrees manifests itself in every part of the country") (opinion of Stewart, J.); City of Rome, 446 U.S., at 182 ("Congress' considered determination that at least another 7 years of statutory remedies were necessary to counter the perpetuation of 95 years of pervasive voting discrimination is both unsurprising and unassailable"); Morgan, 384 U.S., at 656 (Congress had a factual basis to conclude that New York's literacy requirement "constituted an invidious discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause").


Any suggestion that Congress has a substantive, non-remedial power under the Fourteenth Amendment is not supported by our case law. In Oregon v. Mitchell, supra, at 112, a majority of the Court concluded Congress had exceeded its enforcement powers by enacting legislation lowering the minimum age of voters from 21 to 18 in state and local elections. The five Members of the Court who reached this conclusion explained that the legislation intruded into an area reserved by the Constitution to the States. See 400 U.S., at 125 (concluding that the legislation was unconstitutional because the Constitution "reserves to the States the power to set voter qualifications in state and local elections") (opinion of Black, J.); id., at 154 (explaining that the "Fourteenth Amendment was never intended to restrict the authority of the States to allocate their political power as they see fit") (opinion of Harlan, J.); id., at 294 (concluding that States, not Congress, have the power "to establish a qualification for voting based on age") (opinion of Stewart, J., joined by Burger, C. J., and Blackmun, J.). Four of these five were explicit in rejecting the position that 5 endowed Congress with the power to establish the meaning of constitutional provisions. See id., at 209 (opinion of Harlan, J.); id., at 296 (opinion of Stewart, J.). Justice Black's rejection of this position might be inferred from his disagreement with Congress' interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause. See id., at 125.


There is language in our opinion in Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966), which could be interpreted as acknowledging a power in Congress to enact legislation that expands the rights contained in 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. This is not a necessary interpretation, however, or even the best one. In Morgan, the Court considered the constitutionality of 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided that no person who had successfully completed the sixth primary grade in a public school in, or a private school accredited by, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in which the language of instruction was other than English could be denied the right to vote because of an inability to read or write English. New York's Constitution, on the other hand, required voters to be able to read and write English. The Court provided two related rationales for its conclusion that 4(e) could "be viewed as a measure to secure for the Puerto Rican community residing in New York nondiscriminatory treatment by government." Id., at 652. Under the first rationale, Congress could prohibit New York from denying the right to vote to large segments of its Puerto Rican community, in order to give Puerto Ricans "enhanced political power" that would be "helpful in gaining nondiscriminatory treatment in public services for the entire Puerto Rican community." Ibid. Section 4(e) thus could be justified as a remedial measure to deal with "discrimination in governmental services." Id., at 653. The second rationale, an alternative holding, did not address discrimination in the provision of public services but "discrimination in establishing voter qualifications." Id., at 654. The Court perceived a factual basis on which Congress could have concluded that New York's literacy requirement "constituted an invidious discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause." Id., at 656. Both rationales for upholding 4(e) rested on unconstitutional discrimination by New York and Congress' reasonable attempt to combat it. As Justice Stewart explained in Oregon v. Mitchell, supra, at 296, interpreting Morgan to give Congress the power to interpret the Constitution "would require an enormous extension of that decision's rationale."


If Congress could define its own powers by altering the Fourteenth Amendment's meaning, no longer would the Constitution be "superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means." It would be "on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts, . . . alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it." Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch, at 177. Under this approach, it is difficult to conceive of a principle that would limit congressional power. See Van Alstyne, The Failure of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, 46 Duke L. J. 291, 292-303 (1996). Shifting legislative majorities could change the Constitution and effectively circumvent the difficult and detailed amendment process contained in Article V.


We now turn to consider whether RFRA can be considered enforcement legislation under 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.


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Respondent contends that RFRA is a proper exercise of Congress' remedial or preventive power. The Act, it is said, is a reasonable means of protecting the free exercise of religion as defined by Smith. It prevents and remedies laws which are enacted with the unconstitutional object of targeting religious beliefs and practices. See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 533 (1993) ("[A] law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible"). To avoid the difficulty of proving such violations, it is said, Congress can simply invalidate any law which imposes a substantial burden on a religious practice unless it is justified by a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means of accomplishing that interest. If Congress can prohibit laws with discriminatory effects in order to prevent racial discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, see Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U. S. 448, 477 (1980) (plurality opinion); City of Rome, 446 U. S., at 177, then it can do the same, respondent argues, to promote religious liberty.


[521 U.S. 530] While preventive rules are sometimes appropriate remedial measures, there must be a congruence between the means used and the ends to be achieved. The appropriateness of remedial measures must be considered in light of the evil presented. See South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U. S., at 308. Strong measures appropriate to address one harm may be an unwarranted response to another, lesser one. Id., at 334.


A comparison between RFRA and the Voting Rights Act is instructive. In contrast to the record which confronted Congress and the Judiciary in the voting rights cases, RFRA's legislative record lacks examples of modern instances of generally applicable laws passed because of religious bigotry. The history of persecution in this country detailed in the hearings mentions no episodes occurring in the past 40 years. See, e. g., Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1991, Hearings on H. R. 2797 before the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 102d Cong., 2d Sess., 331-334 (1993) (statement of Douglas Laycock) (House Hearings); The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Hearing on S. 2969 before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 102d Cong., 2d Sess., 30-31 (1993) (statement of DaHin H. Oaks) (Senate Hearing); id., at 68-76 (statement of Douglas Laycock); Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1990, Hearing on H. R. 5377 before the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 101st Cong., 2d Sess., 49 (1991) (statement of John H. Buchanan, Jr.) (1990 House Hearing). The absence of more recent episodes stems from the fact that, as one witness testified, "deliberate persecution is not the usual problem in this country." House Hearings 334 (statement of Douglas Laycock). See also House Report 2 ("[L]aws directly targeting religious practices have become increasingly rare"). Rather, the emphasis of the hearings was on laws of general applicability which place incidental burdens on religion. Much of the discussion cen-[521 U.S. 531]tered upon anecdotal evidence of autopsies performed on Jewish individuals and Hmong immigrants in violation of their religious beliefs, see, e. g., House Hearings 81 (statement of Nadine Strossen); id., at 107-110 (statement of William Yang); id., at 118 (statement of Rep. Stephen J. Solarz); id., at 336 (statement of Douglas Laycock); Senate Hearing 5-6, 14-26 (statement of William Yang); id., at 27-28 (statement of Hmong-Lao Unity Assn., Inc.); id., at 50 (statement of Baptist Joint Committee); see also Senate Report 8; House Report 5-6, and n. 14, and on zoning regulations and historic preservation laws (like the one at issue here), which, as an incident of their normal operation, have adverse effects on churches and synagogues. See, e. g., House Hearings 17, 57 (statement of Robert P. Dugan, Jr.); id., at 81 (statement of Nadine Strossen); id., at 122-123 (statement of Rep. Stephen J. Solarz); id., at 157 (statement of Edward M. Gaffney, Jr.); id., at 327 (statement of Douglas Laycock); Senate Hearing 143-144 (statement of Forest D. Montgomery); 1990 House Hearing 39 (statement of Robert P. Dugan, Jr.); see also Senate Report 8; House Report 5-6, and n. 14. It is difficult to maintain that they are examples of legislation enacted or enforced due to animus or hostility to the burdened religious practices or that they indicate some widespread pattern of religious discrimination in this country. Congress' concern was with the incidental burdens imposed, not the object or purpose of the legislation. See House Report 2; Senate Report 4-5; House Hearings 64 (statement of Nadine Strossen); id., at 117-118 (statement of Rep. Stephen J. Solarz); 1990 House Hearing 14 (statement of Rep. Stephen J. Solarz). This lack of support in the legislative record, however, is not RFRA's most serious shortcoming. Judicial deference, in most cases, is based not on the state of the legislative record Congress compiles but "on due regard for the decision of the body constitutionally appointed to decide." Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U. S., at 207 (opinion of Harlan, J.). As a gen-[521 U.S. 532]eral matter, it is for Congress to determine the method by which it will reach a decision.


Regardless of the state of the legislative record, RFRA cannot be considered remedial, preventive legislation, if those terms are to have any meaning. RFRA is so out of proportion to a supposed remedial or preventive object that it cannot be understood as responsive to, or designed to prevent, unconstitutional behavior. It appears, instead, to attempt a substantive change in constitutional protections. Preventive measures prohibiting certain types of laws may be appropriate when there is reason to believe that many of the laws affected by the congressional enactment have a significant likelihood of being unconstitutional. See City of Rome, 446 U. S., at 177 (since "jurisdictions with a demonstrable history of intentional racial discrimination ... create the risk of purposeful discrimination," Congress could "prohibit changes that have a discriminatory impact" in those jurisdictions). Remedial legislation under 5 "should be adapted to the mischief and wrong which the [Fourteenth] [A]mendment was intended to provide against." Civil Rights Cases, 109 U. S., at 13.


RFRA is not so confined. Sweeping coverage ensures its intrusion at every level of government, displacing laws and prohibiting official actions of almost every description and regardless of subject matter. RFRA's restrictions apply to every agency and official of the Federal, State, and local Governments. 42 U. S. C. 2000bb-2(1). RFRA applies to all federal and state law, statutory or otherwise, whether adopted before or after its enactment. 2000bb-3(a). RFRA has no termination date or termination mechanism. Any law is subject to challenge at any time by any individual who alleges a substantial burden on his or her free exercise of religion.


The reach and scope of RFRA distinguish it from other measures passed under Congress' enforcement power, even in the area of voting rights. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the challenged provisions were confined to those regions of the country where voting discrimination had been most flagrant, see 383 U.S., at 315 , and affected a discrete class of state laws, i.e., state voting laws. Furthermore, to ensure that the reach of the Voting Rights Act was limited to those cases in which constitutional violations were most likely (in order to reduce the possibility of overbreadth), the coverage under the Act would terminate "at the behest of States and political subdivisions in which the danger of substantial voting discrimination has not materialized during the preceding five years." Id., at 331. The provisions restricting and banning literacy tests, upheld in Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966), and Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970), attacked a particular type of voting qualification, one with a long history as a "notorious means to deny and abridge voting rights on racial grounds." South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 355 (Black, J., concurring and dissenting). In City of Rome, 446 U.S. 156 , the Court rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of a Voting Rights Act provision which required certain jurisdictions to submit changes in electoral practices to the Department of Justice for pre-implementation review. The requirement was placed only on jurisdictions with a history of intentional racial discrimination in voting. Id., at 177. Like the provisions at issue in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, this provision permitted a covered jurisdiction to avoid preclearance requirements under certain conditions and, moreover, lapsed in seven years. This is not to say, of course, that 5 legislation requires termination dates, geographic restrictions or egregious predicates. Where, however, a congressional enactment pervasively prohibits constitutional state action in an effort to remedy or to prevent unconstitutional state action, limitations of this kind tend to ensure Congress' means are proportionate to ends legitimate under 5.


The stringent test RFRA demands of state laws reflects a lack of proportionality or congruence between the means adopted and the legitimate end to be achieved. If an objector can show a substantial burden on his free exercise, the [521 U.S. 534] State must demonstrate a compelling governmental interest and show that the law is the least restrictive means of furthering its interest. . . .


The substantial costs RFRA exacts, both in practical terms of imposing a heavy litigation burden on the States and in terms of curtailing their traditional general regulatory power, far exceed any pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct under the Free Exercise Clause as interpreted in Smith. Simply put, RFRA is not designed to identify and counteract state laws likely to be unconstitutional because of their treatment [521 U.S. 535]of religion. In most cases, the state laws to which RFRA applies are not ones which will have been motivated by religious bigotry. . . .


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Our national experience teaches that the Constitution is preserved best when each part of the government respects [521 U.S. 535] both the Constitution and the proper actions and determinations of the other branches. When the Court has interpreted the Constitution, it has acted within the province of the Judicial Branch, which embraces the duty to say what the law is. Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch, at 177. When the political branches of the Government act against the background of a judicial interpretation of the Constitution already issued, it must be understood that in later cases and controversies the Court will treat its precedents with the respect due them under settled principles, including stare decisis, and contrary expectations must be disappointed. RFRA was designed to control cases and controversies, such as the one before us; but as the provisions of the federal statute here invoked are beyond congressional authority, it is this Court's precedent, not RFRA, which must control.


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[521 U.S. 536] It is for Congress in the first instance to "determin[e] whether and what legislation is needed to secure the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment," and its conclusions are entitled to much deference. Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S., at 651 . Congress' discretion is not unlimited, however, and the courts retain the power, as they have since Marbury v. Madison, to determine if Congress has exceeded its authority under the Constitution. Broad as the power of Congress is under the Enforcement Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, RFRA contradicts vital principles necessary to maintain separation of powers and the federal balance. The judgment of the Court of Appeals sustaining the Act's constitutionality is reversed.


It is so ordered.