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Belle Terre v. Boraas

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Significance: The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a local zoning ordinance that prohibited most unrelated groups from living together in a single-unit dwelling.


The owner of a house in the small village of Belle Terre, New York, leased it to six unrelated college students. When cited for violating a zoning ordinance, the owners and tenants went to court, claiming that the ordinance violated their constitutional right of privacy. Speaking for a 7-2 majority, Justice William O. Douglas used the rational basis test of economic and social legislation, and found the ordinance to be a valid exercise of the community's police power. The ordinance bore a rational relationship with a permissible governmental objective of maintaining a quiet place to raise a family. In dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the ordinance infringed on fundamental rights of privacy and association and that the village had the burden of showing a “compelling and substantial” justification for the infringement. Although upholding the ordinance, the Belle Terre decision demonstrated the Supreme Court's developing commitment to the doctrine of substantive due process, requiring that any restraints on liberty must be justified by an adequate state interest. The decision should be compared with Moore v. City of East Cleveland (1977), in which the Court struck down an ordinance that had the effect of prohibiting an extended family from living together.