Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974)

Author: Justice Marshall

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Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974)


This case draws into question the constitutionality of a zoning ordinance of the incorporated village of Belle Terre, New York, which prohibits groups of more than two unrelated persons, as distinguished from groups consisting of any number of persons related by blood, adoption, or marriage, from occupying a residence within the confines of the township.{1} Lessor-appellees, the two owners of a Belle Terre residence, and three unrelated student tenants challenged the ordinance on the ground that it establishes a classification between households of related and unrelated individuals, which deprives them of equal protection of the laws. In my view, the disputed classification burdens the students’ fundamental rights of association and privacy guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Because the application of strict equal protection scrutiny is therefore required, I am at odds with my Brethren’s conclusion that the ordinance may be sustained on a showing that it bears a rational relationship to the accomplishment of legitimate governmental objectives.

I am in full agreement with the majority that zoning is a complex and important function of the State. It may indeed be the most essential function performed by local government, for it is one of the primary means by which we protect that sometimes difficult to define concept of quality of life. I therefore continue to adhere to the principle of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365 (1926), that deference should be given to governmental judgments concerning proper land use allocation. That deference is a principle which has served this Court well, and which is necessary for the continued development of effective zoning and land use control mechanisms. Had the owners alone brought this suit alleging that the restrictive ordinance deprived them of their property or was an irrational legislative classification, I would agree that the ordinance would have to be sustained. Our role is not and should not be to sit as a zoning board of appeals.

I would also agree with the majority that local zoning authorities may properly act in furtherance of the objectives asserted to be served by the ordinance at issue here: restricting uncontrolled growth, solving traffic problems, keeping rental costs at a reasonable level, and making the community attractive to families. The police power which provides the justification for zoning is not narrowly confined. See Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26 (1954). And it is appropriate that we afford zoning authorities considerable latitude in choosing the means by which to implement such purposes. But deference does not mean abdication. This Court has an obligation to ensure that zoning ordinances, even when adopted in furtherance of such legitimate aims, do not infringe upon fundamental constitutional rights.

When separate but equal was still accepted constitutional dogma, this Court struck down a racially restrictive zoning ordinance. Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60 (1917). I am sure the Court would not be hesitant to invalidate that ordinance today. The lower federal courts have considered procedural aspects of zoning,{2} and acted to insure that land use controls are not used as means of confining minorities and the poor to the ghettos of our central cities.{3} These are limited but necessary intrusions on the discretion of zoning authorities. By the same token, I think it clear that the First Amendment provides some limitation on zoning laws. It is inconceivable to me that we would allow the exercise of the zoning power 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 to be constructed in a certain neighborhood or the number of persons who can reside in those 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.

My disagreement with the Court today is based upon my view that the ordinance in this case unnecessarily burdens appellees’ First Amendment freedom of association and their constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. Our decisions establish that the First and Fourteenth Amendments protect the freedom to choose one’s associates. NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 430 (1963). Constitutional protection is extended not only to modes of association that are political in the usual sense, but also to those that pertain to the social and economic benefit of the members. Id. at 430-431; Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Virginia Bar, 377 U.S. 1 (1964). See United Transportation Union v. State Bar of Michigan, 401 U.S. 576 (1971); Mine Workers v. Illinois State Bar Assn., 389 U.S. 217 (1967). The selection of one’s living companions involves similar choices as to the emotional, social, or economic benefits to be derived from alternative living arrangements.

The freedom of association is often inextricably entwined with the constitutionally guaranteed right of privacy. The right to "establish a home" is an essential part of the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Meer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399 (1923); Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 495 (1965) (Goldberg, J., concurring). And the Constitution secures to an individual a freedom "to satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home." Stanleyv. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 565 (1969); see Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49, 667 (1973). Constitutionally protected privacy is, in Mr. Justice Brandeis’ words, "as against the Government, the right to be let alone . . . the right most valued by civilized man." Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 478 (1928) (dissenting opinion). The choice of household companions -- of whether a person’s "intellectual and emotional needs" are best met by living with family, friends, professional associates, or others -- involves deeply personal considerations as to the kind and quality of intimate relationships within the home. That decision surely falls within the ambit of the right to privacy protected by the Constitution. See Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 153 (1973); Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 453 (1972); Stanley v. Georgia, supra, at 564-565; Griswold v. Connecticut, supra, at 483, 486; Olmstead v. United States, supra at 478 (Brandeis, J., dissenting); Moreno v. Department of Agriculture, 345 F.Supp. 310, 315 (DC 1972), aff’d,413 U.S. 528 (1973).

The instant ordinance discriminates on the basis of just such a personal lifestyle choice as to household companions. It permits any number of persons related by blood or marriage, be it two or twenty, to live in a single household, but it limits to two the number of unrelated persons bound by profession, love, friendship, religious or political affiliation, or mere economics who can occupy a single home. Belle Terre imposes upon those who deviate from the community norm in their choice of living companions significantly greater restrictions than are applied to residential groups who are related by blood or marriage, and compose the established order within the community.{4} The village has, in effect, acted to fence out those individuals whose choice of lifestyle differs from that of its current residents.{5}

This is not a case where the Court is being asked to nullify a township’s sincere efforts to maintain its residential character by preventing the operation of rooming houses, fraternity houses, or other commercial or high-density residential uses. Unquestionably, a town is free to restrict such uses. Moreover, as a general proposition, I see no constitutional infirmity in a town’s limiting the density of use in residential areas by zoning regulations which do not discriminate on the basis of constitutionally suspect criteria.{6} This ordinance, however, limits the density of occupancy of only those homes occupied by unrelated persons. It thus reaches beyond control of the use of land or the density of population and undertakes to regulate the way people choose to associate with each other within the privacy of their own homes.

It is no answer to say, as does the majority, that associational interests are not infringed because Belle Terre residents may entertain whomever they choose. Only last Term, MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS indicated in concurrence that he saw the right of association protected by the First Amendment as involving far more than the right to entertain visitors. He found that right infringed by a restriction on food stamp assistance, penalizing households of "unrelated persons." As MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS there said, freedom of association encompasses the "right to invite the stranger into one’s home" not only for "entertainment," but to join the household as well. Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528, 538-545 (1973) (concurring opinion). I am still persuaded that the choice of those who will form one’s household implicates constitutionally protected rights.

Because I believe that this zoning ordinance creates a classification which impinges upon fundamental personal rights, it can withstand constitutional scrutiny only upon a clear showing that the burden imposed is necessary to protect a compelling and substantial governmental interest, Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 634 (1969). And, once it be determined that a burden has been placed upon a constitutional right, the onus of demonstrating that no less intrusive means will adequately protect the compelling state interest and that the challenged statute is sufficiently narrowly drawn, is upon the party seeking to justify the burden. See Memorial Hospital v. Maricopa County, 415 U.S. 250 (1974); Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525-526 (1958).

A variety of justifications have been proffered in support of the village’s ordinance. It is claimed that the ordinance controls population density, prevents noise, traffic and parking problems, and preserves the rent structure of the community and its attractiveness to families. As I noted earlier, these are all legitimate and substantial interests of government. But I think it clear that the means chosen to accomplish these purposes are both overinclusive and underinclusive, and that the asserted goals could be as effectively achieved by means of an ordinance that did not discriminate on the basis of constitutionally protected choices of lifestyle. The ordinance imposes no restriction whatsoever on the number of persons who may live in a house, as long as they are related by marital or sanguinary bonds -- presumably no matter how distant their relationship. Nor does the ordinance restrict the number of income earners who may contribute to rent in such a household, or the number of automobiles that may be maintained by its occupants. In that sense, the ordinance is underinclusive. On the other hand, the statute restricts the number of unrelated persons who may live in a home to no more than two. It would therefore prevent three unrelated people from occupying a dwelling even if among them they had but one income and no vehicles. While an extended family of a dozen or more might live in a small bungalow, three elderly and retired persons could not occupy the large manor house next door. Thus, the statute is also grossly overinclusive to accomplish its intended purposes.

There are some 220 residences in Belle Terre, occupied by about 700 persons. The density is therefore just above three per household. The village is justifiably concerned with density of population and the related problems of noise, traffic, and the like. It could deal with those problems by limiting each household to a specified number of adults, two or three perhaps, without limitation on the number of dependent children.{7} The burden of such an ordinance would fall equally upon all segments of the community. It would surely be better tailored to the goals asserted by the village than the ordinance before us today, for it would more realistically restrict population density and growth and their attendant environmental costs. Various other statutory mechanisms also suggest themselves as solutions to Belle Terre’s problems -- rent control, limits on the number of vehicles per household, and so forth, but, of course, such schemes are matters of legislative judgment, and not for this Court. Appellants also refer to the necessity of maintaining the family character of the village. There is not a shred of evidence in the record indicating that, if Belle Terre permitted a limited number of unrelated persons to live together, the residential, familial character of the community would be fundamentally affected.

By limiting unrelated households to two persons while placing no limitation on households of related individuals, the village has embarked upon its commendable course in a constitutionally faulty vessel. Cf. Marshall v. United States, 414 U.S. 417, 430 (1974) (dissenting opinion). I would find the challenged ordinance unconstitutional. But I would not ask the village to abandon its goal of providing quiet streets, little traffic, and a pleasant and reasonably priced environment in which families might raise their children. Rather, I would commend the village to continue to pursue those purposes, but by means of more carefully drawn and even-handed legislation.

I respectfully dissent.

1. The text of the ordinance is reprinted in part, ante at 2.

2. See Citizens Assn. of Georgetown v. Zoning Comm’n, 155 U.S.App.D.C. 233, 477 F.2d 402 (1973).

3. See Kennedy Park Homes Assn. v. Lackawanna, 436 F.2d 108 (CA2 1970); Dailey v. City of Lawton, 425 F.2d 1037 (CA10 1970); cf. Gautreau v. City of Chicago, 480 F.2d 210 (CA7 1973); Crow v. Brown, 457 F.2d 788 (CA5 1972); Southern Alameda Spanish Speaking Organization v. Union City, 424 F.2d 291 (CA9 1970). See generally Sager, Tight Little Islands: Exclusionary Zoning, Equal Protection, and the Indigent, 21 Stan.L.Rev. 767 (1969); Note, Exclusionary Zoning and Equal Protection, 84 Harv.L.Rev. 1645 (1971); Note, The Responsibility of Local Zoning Authorities to Nonresident Indigents, 23 Stan.L.Rev. 774 (1971).


Perhaps in an ideal world, planning and zoning would be done on a regional basis, so that a given community would have apartments, while an adjoining community would not. But as long as we allow zoning to be done community by community, it is intolerable to allow one municipality (or many municipalities) to close its doors at the expense of surrounding communities and the central city.

Appeal of Girsh, 437 Pa. 237, 245 n. 4, 263 A.2d 395, 399 n. 4 (1970).

5. See generally Note, On Privacy: Constitutional Protection for Personal Liberty, 48 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 670, 740-750 (1973).

6. See Palo Alto Tenants’ Union v. Morgan, 487 F.2d 883 (CA9 1973).

7. By providing an exception for dependent children, the village would avoid any doubts that might otherwise be posed by the constitutional protection afforded the choice of whether to bear a child. See Molino v. Mayor & Council of Glassboro, 116 N.J.Super.195, 281 A.2d 401 (1971); cf. Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, 414 U.S. 632 (1974).


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Chicago: Marshall, "Marshall, J., Dissenting," Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974) in 416 U.S. 1 416 U.S. 13–416 U.S. 20. Original Sources, accessed August 14, 2022,

MLA: Marshall. "Marshall, J., Dissenting." Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974), in 416 U.S. 1, pp. 416 U.S. 13–416 U.S. 20. Original Sources. 14 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Marshall, 'Marshall, J., Dissenting' in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974). cited in 1974, 416 U.S. 1, pp.416 U.S. 13–416 U.S. 20. Original Sources, retrieved 14 August 2022, from