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The City of Cleburne, Texas had a zoning regulation that required hospitals to obtain a special-use permit if they planned to serve the “insane and feeble-minded.”
Cleburne Living Center, Inc. applied for the permit, but the city council refused to grant it. The hospital filed suit, alleging that the city’s zoning ordinance discriminated against mentally disabled people in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and was therefore invalid.
Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court took up the case in City of Cleburne, Texas v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432 (1985), to determine whether people with mental disabilities were part of a suspect class and whether the zoning ordinance was constitutional.
A divided Court held that mentally disabled people were not a suspect class and, thus, heightened scrutiny did not apply. Nevertheless, the Court struck down the ordinance because it lacked any rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose. Rather, the city based the ordinance purely on irrational prejudice, as evidenced by the fact that other group-living facilities did not have to obtain the permit.
This case is notable both for the Court’s explanation of what makes a suspect class and the fact that it was one of the few instances in which the Court applied rational-basis review and still struck down the law.