Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas

When came to people living together or inhabiting a home, Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas (1974) said only families.

Here’s the facts. Village of Belle Terre (appellant) passed a zoning ordinance which had a narrow definition of family. The ordinance said only families (two parents and children) could live together and not college students.

Here’s the issue: Was this zoning ordinance constitutional?

The Supreme Court ruled yes. The Village of Belle Terra did not violate the US Constitution because it did not violate any fundamental rights (ie. equal rights, freedom of association) of the Constitution. The legislators of Belle Terra can enact their own ordinances, which can define a family and who can and can not live in a home. The zoning ordinance was a proper example of the state police power to enact their own laws.

The Belle Terra holding further touches on the issue of social control. In a very Orwellian view, Belle Terra defined a family. By defining a family, the Village defined what wasn’t a family; namely, three or more unrelated people sharing a home. And by defining a family, the Village took it one step further and said only families can live in homes, so three or more senior citizens, for example, living together were breaking the law. This ruling controlled the citizens of Belle Terra in terms of what constituted a family.

By defining a family with this case, the Village of Belle Terra essentially controlled the composition of their village. Only nuclear families could live in Belle Terra by law. Non-western forms of families (extended families) could not live in Belle Terra by law. Also, this ruling could could be extended to religious beliefs and political beliefs, according the dissent in this ruling.

Of course there was dissent on the Supreme Court, namely, Justice Marshall. Justice Marshall argued the correct standard of review should be strict scrutiny, since, in his view, fundamental rights of privacy and association were at issue. Also, Justice Marshall said zoning ordinance should stick to land use and not be extended to who can live in a dwelling. Finally, Justice Marshall said the right to establish a home is the right of due process, which the majority did not uphold, in his view. Justice Marshall formed the main dissent in this case.

According to Justice Marshall, the Supreme Court over extended themselves in this ruling.

“It is inconceivable to me that we would allow the exercise of the zoning power [established in a 1926 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Euclid v. Ambler Realty] to burden First Amendment freedoms, as by ordinances that restrict occupancy to individuals adhering to particular religious, political, or scientific beliefs. Zoning officials properly concern themselves with the uses of land—with, for example, the number and kind of dwellings. But zoning authorities cannot validly consider who those persons are, what they believe, or how they choose to live, whether they are Negro or white, Catholic or Jew, Republican or Democrat, married or unmarried.”

In brief, Village of Belle Terra v. Boraas laid down another precedent in property law. Basically, the court avoided saying this case violated the First Amendment, so the Belle Terre zoning ordinance is ok. It said a village could use it’s police power to determine the composition of a home and who can live there. This case is stare decisis and continues to be cited today.

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