The remedial and preventive nature of Congress' enforcement power, and the limitation inherent in the power, were confirmed in our earliest cases on the Fourteenth Amendment. In the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883), the Court invalidated sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which prescribed criminal penalties for denying to any person "the full enjoyment of" public accommodations and conveyances, on the grounds that it exceeded Congress' power by seeking to regulate private conduct. The Enforcement Clause, the Court said, did not authorize Congress to pass "general legislation upon the rights of the citizen, but corrective legislation; that is, such as may be necessary and proper for counteracting such laws as the States may adopt or enforce, and which, by the amendment, they are prohibited from making or enforcing," Id., at 13-14. The power to "legislate generally upon" life, liberty, and property, as opposed to the "power to provide modes of redress" against offensive state action, was "repugnant" to the Constitution. Id., at 15. See also United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 218 (1876); United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629, 639 (1883); James v. Bowman, 190 U. S. 127, 139 (1903). Although the specific holdings of these early cases might have been superseded or modified, see, e.g., Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964); United States v. Guest, 383 U.S. 745 (1966), their treatment of Congress' §5 power as corrective or preventive, not definitional, has not been questioned.
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 experienceit 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 form this country's history of racial discrimination. See Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S., at 132 ("In enacting the literacy test banCongress 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 refection 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 Katzenback 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. 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 632. Under the first rational, 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 Alatyne, 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.
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 the 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 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.
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. Katzenback, 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 tot he 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 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 Dallin H. Oaks) (Senate Hearing); Senate Hearing 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, 101 st 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 centered 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 at 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 general 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. Katzenback, 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. Katzenback, 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 preimplementation 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. Katzenback, 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 State must demonstrate a compelling governmental interest and show that the law is the least restrictive means of furthering its interest. Claims that a law substantially burdens someone's exercise of religion will often be difficult to contest. See Smith, 494 U.S., at 887 ("What principle of law or logic can be brought to bear to contradict a believer's assertion that a particular act is 'central' to his personal faith?"); id., at 907 ("The distinction between questions of centrality and questions of sincerity and burden is admittedly fine ") (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in judgment). Requiring a State to demonstrate a compelling interest and show that it has adopted the least restrictive means of achieving that interest is the most demanding test known to constitutional law. If "'compelling interest' really means what it says many laws will not meet the test . [The test ] would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind." Id., at 888. Laws valid under Smith would fall under RFRA without regard to whether they had the object of stifling or punishing free exercise. We make these observations not to reargue the position of the majority in Smith but to illustrate the substantive alteration of its holding attempted by RFRA. Even assuming RFRA would be interpreted in effect to mandate some lesser test, say one equivalent to intermediate scrutiny, the statute nevertheless would require searching judicial scrutiny of state law with the attendant likelihood of invalidation. This is a considerable congressional intrusion into the States' traditional prerogatives and general authority to regulate for the health and welfare of their citizens.
The substantial costs RFRA extacts, 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 of religion. In most cases, the state laws to which RFRA applies are not ones which will have been motivated by religious bigotry. If a state law disproportionately burdened a particular class of religious observers, this circumstance might be evidence of an impermissible legislative motive. Cf. Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 241 (1976). RFRA's substantial burden test, however, is not even a discriminatory effects or disparate impact test. It is a reality of the modern regulatory state that numerous state laws, such as the zoning regulations at issue here, impose a substantial burden on a large class of individuals. When the exercise of religion has been burdened in an incidental way by a law of general application, it does not follow that the persons affected have been burdened any more than other citizens, let alone burdened because of their religious beliefs. In addition, the Act imposes in every case a least restrictive means requirement - a requirement that was not used in the pre-Smith jurisprudence RFRA purported to codify - which also indicates that the legislation is broader than is appropriate if the goal is to prevent and remedy constitutional violations.
When Congress acts within its sphere of power and responsibilities, it has not just the right but the duty to make its own informed judgment on the meaning and force of the Constitution. This has been clear from the early days of the Republic. In 1789, when a Member of the House of Representatives objected to a debate on the constitutionality of legislation based on the theory that "it would be officious" to consider the constitutionality of a measure that did not affect the House, James Madison explained that "it is incontrovertibly of as much importance to this branch of the Government as to any other, that the constitution should be preserved entire. It is our duty." 1 Annals of Congress 500 (1789). Were it otherwise, we would not afford Congress the presumption of validity its enactments now enjoy.
Our national experience teaches that the Constitution is preserved best when each part of the government respects 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.
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.