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City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center: Supreme Court Uses Equal Protection to Stop Discrimination Against Handicapped Persons

Prior to the enactment of the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 adding handicapped to the protected classes, the Supreme Court addressed the applicable standard of review for alleged Equal Protection clause violations against mentally retarded people in the case City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center. The Court held that a city ordinance violated the Equal Protection clause, as there was not a rational relation between the ordinance and legitimate state interests.

Cleburne Living Center (CLC) wished to lease a building for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded and was informed by the City of Cleburne (City) that a special use permit was required. The City 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 home would be located. CLC applied for a special use permit, but after a public hearing the City Council denied the permit. CLC then filed suit against the City 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 that the ordinance was constitutional both facially and in its application. The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court and held that mental retardation was a "quasi-suspect" classification. The Fifth Circuit also held that, under the applicable "heightened-scrutiny" equal protection test, the ordinance was facially invalid because it did not substantially further an important governmental purpose. The Fifth Circuit also concluded that the ordinance was invalid as applied. The City appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that the Fifth Circuit erred in its characterization of mental retardation as a quasi-suspect classification calling for a more exacting standard of judicial review than is normally accorded economic and social legislation. The Supreme Court found that the applicable standard of review was that the legislation was rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Under this level of scrutiny, the Court concluded that the ordinance requiring a special use permit for the proposed group home violated the Equal Protection clause. The Court's reasoning was that the requirement, in absence of any rational basis for believing that the home would pose a special threat to the City's legitimate interests, appeared to rest on an irrational prejudice against the mentally retarded. The Supreme Court then affirmed the Fifth Circuit's invalidation of the zoning ordinance and vacated the judgment.

City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432, 105 S. Ct. 3249 (1985).