A Texas city did not allow a use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded, acting pursuant to a municipal zoning ordinance requiring permits for such homes. The Court of Appeals held that mental retardation is a “quasi-suspect” classification and that the ordinance violated equal protection because it failed to substantially further an important governmental purpose.
A law or statute is presumed to be valid if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.While equal protection allows the states wide latitude when social or economic legislation is at issue, strict scrutiny will be applied if a statute classifies by race or national origin.
The respondent purchased a building in Texas with the intention of leasing it to Cleburne Living Centers for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded. The city council held a public hearing on CLC’s application for the operation and denied a special use permit.
Does a city ordinance that denies a use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded violate the equal protection?
Yes, because the statute that distinguishes between the mentally retarded and others are not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. Because the Texas city has failed to demonstrate that the classification’s relationship to its asserted goal is more than attenuated as to make the distinction sound and rational, the statute does not withstand the equal protection review.
When a zoning ordinance works to exclude the retarded from all residential districts in a community, the two considerations below require that the ordinance must be justified as substantially furthering legitimate and important purposes. The interest in establishing group homes is substantial. Also, the mentally retarded have been subject to a lengthy and tragic history of discrimination. Taking into account the considerations, the city ordinance that classifies by mental retardation rests on impermissible assumptions and invidious stereotypes.
The City Council was concerned with the negative attitude of the majority of property owners near the group home. However, mere negative attitudes or fear that are properly cognizable in a zoning proceeding, are not permissible bases for treating a home for the mentally retarded differently from others. The City Council’s concern that the facility is located near a junior high school and feared that the students might harass the occupants of the home. But the school is attended by 30 mentally retarded students and the Council’s concern with the possibility of flood cannot be based on a distinction between the home and, for example, nursing home or hospitals. All of the Council’s presented concerns are not sufficient to justify the statute that classifies by mental illness.