Maintaining Animals is not a Fundamental Right, Court Reminds Us

Peggy Hall, Asst. Professor, OSUE Agricultural & Resource Law Program       .

Does an Ohio resident have a constitutional right to keep rabbits, goats, chickens, horses, cows, ducks, turkeys, geese or other fowl on his or her property?  No, according to a recent decision by Ohio’s Eighth District Court of Appeals.  Nor does a city ordinance that prohibits the keeping of such animals violate the federal or state constitutions.

A resident of Bedford, Ohio raised the challenge after being found guilty of a minor misdemeanor for keeping a pygmy goal and four chickens at his home, in contradiction to a city ordinance.  The resident claimed that the city ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution and Ohio Constitution, Article 1, Section 1, which provides:  “All men are, by nature, free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and seeking and obtaining happiness and safety.”

But the court noted that the Ohio Constitution also states in Article 1, Section 19 that “Private property shall ever be held inviolate, but subservient to the public welfare,”  which allows a law to interfere with private rights to accomplish a valid public welfare purpose.   Where a law does affect private rights, the court explained that it must scrutinize the law and its purpose.  Interferences with fundamental private  rights require the most strict scrutiny, but the court quickly followed precedents set by other Ohio courts to reiterate that the right to maintain animals is not a fundamental right.  Thus, under a lower level of judicial scrutiny, a law that interferes with the right to keep animals will be upheld if the law is “rationally related to a legitimate government interest.”  According to the court, the Bedford ordinance surpasses this test because the law protects the public from unsanitary conditions and noxious odors by prohibiting certain animals in an urban area.

All is not lost for city dwellers who want farm animals, however.  Recognizing the popularity of “urban farms” and “backyard chickens,” the court explained that residents in urban areas can petition their lawmakers to allow such animals as pets.  The local government could permit the animals while protecting public safety and welfare through building requirements or restrictions on the number of animals, the court explained.

The Bedford case is not unusual, but illustrates a continuing trend in conflicts over keeping animals in urban areas.  To read the court’s opinion, see City of Bedford v. James L. Deal, here.

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