An ongoing struggle in the finding appropriate community-based residential settings for people with developmental disabilities is, unfortunately, resistance from other residents of the communities. In 1985, this issue reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court invalidated the requirement imposed by the City of Cleburne, Texas, that the operator of a proposed group home for 13 men and women with developmental disabilities obtain a ‘special use permit,’ holding that this requirement violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court rejected the argument that people with developmental disabilities were a ‘suspect class’, subjecting the City’s actions to “strict scrutiny.” Nonetheless, the Court held, the Equal Protection Clause demands that whenever legislation classifies a group of citizens differently from other citizens, the government must establish at least a “rational relationship” between the reason for the unequal treatment and the means used to address whatever the problem was the government was trying to address.

The City categorized the proposed group home as requiring a special use permit as required for “[h]ospitals for the insane or feebleminded, or alcoholic [sic] or drug addicts, or penal or correctional institutions.”[1] Such permits were not required for apartment houses, fraternity houses, or nursing homes. The Court found unconvincing the reasons the City of Cleburne offered for requiring such a permit. They rejected reasons such as the fears of neighboring property owners and elderly residents, and the possibility that students at a nearby school would harass the residents.

The Court wrote, “mere negative attitudes, or fear, unsubstantiated by factors which are properly cognizable in a zoning proceeding, are not permissible bases for treating a home for the mentally retarded differently from apartment houses, multiple dwellings, and the like.”[2] The Court also rejected reasons based on the fact that the home was located in a 500-year flood plain, and a residential neighborhood, ruling that these objections would be equally applicable to apartment buildings, nursing homes, and fraternities, none of which are required to obtain such a special use permit.

The Court thus concluded that “requiring the permit in this case appears to us to rest on an irrational prejudice against the mentally retarded.”[3] The requirement as applied to the proposed residence was thus invalidated as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

City of Cleburne Resources and References

Articles and Other Secondary Sources

Jeanette M. Bourey, Cleburne Living Center v. City of Cleburne: The Irrational Relationship of Mental Retardation to Zoning Objectives, 19 The John Marshall Law Review 469, 1986.

Thomas F. Guernsey, The Mentally Retarded and Private Restrictive Covenants, 25 Wm. & Mary L. Rev.421 (1983)

Annette E. Skinner, Expanding the Quasi Suspect Class to Include Mentally Retarded Persons: Cleburne Living Center v. City of Cleburne, 18 Akron Law Review 141 (1984)

John, D. Wilson, Cleburne: An Evolutionary Step in Equal Protection Analysis, 46 Md. L. Rev. 163 (1986)

Legal Resources and Documents

City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432 (1985)


City Of West Monroe V. Ouachita Association For Retarded Children, Inc., 402 So.2d 259 (2d Circ.1981)

Macon Ass’n for Retarded Citizens v. Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Com’n, 252 Ga. 484 (Ga. 1984)

  1. ^City of Cleburne, Tex. v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432, 436 (1985).
  2. ^Id. at 448
  3. ^Id. at 450