Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr.,
473 U.S. 432 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432 (1985)

City of Cleburne, Texas v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc.

No. 84-468

Argued March 18, 1985

Reargued April 23, 1985

Decided July 1, 1985

473 U.S. 432


Respondent Cleburne Living Center, Inc. (CLC), which anticipated leasing a certain building for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded, was informed by petitioner city that a special use permit would be required, the city having concluded that the proposed group home should be classified as a "hospital for the feebleminded" under the zoning ordinance covering the area in which the proposed home would be located. Accordingly, CLC applied for a special use permit, but the City Council, after a public hearing, denied the permit. CLC and others (also respondents here) then filed suit against the city and a number of its officials, alleging that the zoning ordinance, on its face and as applied, violated the equal protection rights of CLC and its potential residents. The District Court held the ordinance and its application constitutional. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that mental retardation is a "quasi-suspect" classification; that, under the applicable "heightened scrutiny" equal protection test, the ordinance was facially invalid because it did not substantially further an important governmental purpose; and that the ordinance was also invalid as applied.


1. The Court of Appeals erred in holding mental retardation a quasi-suspect classification calling for a more exacting standard of judicial review than is normally accorded economic and social legislation. Pp. 473 U. S. 439-447.

(a) Where individuals in a group affected by a statute have distinguishing characteristics relevant to interests a State has the authority to implement, the Equal Protection Clause requires only that the classification drawn by the statute be rationally related to a legitimate state interest. When social or economic legislation is at issue, the Equal Protection Clause allows the States wide latitude. Pp. 473 U. S. 439-442.

(b) Mentally retarded persons, who have a reduced ability to cope with and function in the everyday world, are thus different from other persons, and the States' interest in dealing with and providing for them

Page 473 U. S. 433

is plainly a legitimate one. The distinctive legislative response, both national and state, to the plight of those who are mentally retarded demonstrates not only that they have unique problems, but also that the lawmakers have been addressing their difficulties in a manner that belies a continuing antipathy or prejudice and a corresponding need for more intrusive oversight by the judiciary than is afforded under the normal equal protection standard. Moreover, the legislative response, which could hardly have occurred and survived without public support, negates any claim that the mentally retarded are politically powerless in the sense that they have no ability to attract the attention of the lawmakers. The equal protection standard requiring that legislation be rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose affords government the latitude necessary both to pursue policies designed to assist the retarded in realizing their full potential, and to freely and efficiently engage in activities that burden the retarded in what is essentially an incidental manner. Pp. 473 U. S. 442-447.

2. Requiring a special use permit for the proposed group home here deprives respondents of the equal protection of the laws, and thus it is unnecessary to decide whether the ordinance's permit requirement is facially invalid where the mentally retarded are involved. Although the mentally retarded, as a group, are different from those who occupy other facilities -- such as boarding houses and hospitals -- that are permitted in the zoning area in question without a special permit, such difference is irrelevant unless the proposed group home would threaten the city's legitimate interests in a way that the permitted uses would not. The record does not reveal any rational basis for believing that the proposed group home would pose any special threat to the city's legitimate interests. Requiring the permit in this case appears to rest on an irrational prejudice against the mentally retarded, including those who would occupy the proposed group home and who would live under the closely supervised and highly regulated conditions expressly provided for by state and federal law. Pp. 473 U. S. 447-450.

726 F.2d 191, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 473 U. S. 451. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 473 U. S. 455.

Page 473 U. S. 435

Primary Holding

There is no elevated level of scrutiny for government regulations that affect mentally retarded people, but these regulations still can be invalidated under rational basis review.


Multiple-residence dwellings were classified as R-3 in the City of Cleburne in Texas. While they generally did not require a permit, a home for mentally retarded individuals did require a permit. The city rejected a permit application by the Cleburne Living Center, Inc., after receiving opposition from residents of the area. The Center argued that the zoning ordinance was an unconstitutional violation of equal protection. The Fifth Circuit agreed after applying heightened scrutiny on the basis that mentally retarded individuals are a protected group.



  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

Courts should resist applying heightened scrutiny to regulations that affect mentally retarded people because regulations in this area require a substantial amount of variety and tailoring, which legislatures are better situated than courts to oversee. More intrusive judicial review might discourage legislatures from passing laws in this area, and legislatures take action on this group's behalf with sufficient frequency and force to show that this group is not politically powerless. The Fourteenth Amendment would be expanded too broadly if it permitted special treatment for such a large group, since its protections must be limited to certain clearly defined groups if they continue to be so strong.

However, this particular regulation fails the rational basis standard simply because it is based on irrational prejudice and is not connected to any legitimate interest.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

Case Commentary

This decision is a rare example of when a court strikes down a law under rational basis review, which is the lowest level of scrutiny and generally an easy burden for the government to meet. However, the Court found that fear of mentally retarded people is not a legitimate government interest.

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