Divine Justice: IJ Case on Behalf of Monks Puts Lid on Louisiana Casket Monopoly

October 11, 2011

By Jeff Rowes and Scott Bullock

The brothers of Saint Joseph Abbey and IJ set major economic liberty precedent in July when a federal judge in New Orleans struck down the Louisiana law that made it a crime for the monks to sell their handmade caskets to the public. The court ruled that the Constitution does not allow the government to restrict the right to earn an honest living just to enrich government-licensed funeral directors. This is a victory not only for the monks, but for entrepreneurs nationwide, all of whom benefit from IJ’s strategic mission to guarantee economic liberty as an enforceable constitutional right.

For 13 centuries, the Rule of St. Benedict has instructed monks to support themselves through honest labor. Heeding this call, the brothers of Saint Joseph Abbey decided to build caskets to put food on their table, educate their younger monks and provide health care for their elderly brethren.

But neither St. Benedict nor the monks of the Abbey could have foreseen the unholy alliance between Louisiana legislators and the funeral industry. Last year, following complaints by state-licensed funeral directors, the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors summoned Abbot Justin Brown—the religious superior of the monastery—and Deacon Mark Coudrain to answer for the sin of selling a wooden box without a government license.

But the state board did not know that the monks, and entrepreneurs everywhere, have a guardian angel in the Institute for Justice. We turned the tables on the state board by filing a federal lawsuit last summer on the same date that the board had scheduled the hearing against the Abbot and Deacon Mark.

At trial in June, we proved that restricting who may sell a casket does nothing to protect the public and simply funnels money into the wallets of government-protected funeral directors. In a decision with ramifications far beyond Louisiana and the funeral industry, Judge Stanwood Duval rightly held that the Constitution forbids laws that lack a legitimate public purpose.

As sweet as this victory is, there is scarcely time to savor it because an even bigger fight looms over the horizon. The state board filed an appeal with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will for the first time confront the question at the heart of this case, one of the most important unresolved questions in American constitutional law: Is economic protectionism a legitimate use of government power?

Although the answer seems an obvious “no,” getting the courts to recognize this fundamental principle has been an uphill battle for all of IJ’s 20 years. But by forcing courts to wrestle with economic liberty in a serious way for the first time since the New Deal, and by persevering through inevitable setbacks, IJ’s strategic litigation has created disagreement among federal courts on the legitimacy of naked economic protectionism and laid the foundation for what will one day be a historic U.S. Supreme Court case. Thus, in representing the monks on appeal, our objective is not just to prevail, but to position ourselves for the ultimate win in the event that these 38 monks one day find themselves before nine justices.

As long as special interests refuse to heed the 10th Commandment’s injunction against coveting thy neighbor’s ox (or his casket customers) or the 14th Amendment’s prohibition against government-imposed cartels, we need judges who will heed the Constitution’s injunction against abusing government power for private economic gain. We found that in this case, and we will find it again on appeal and in our other cases as we defend economic liberty for everyone, including the monks of the Abbey.

Jeff Rowes and Scott Bullock are IJ senior attorneys.

Also in this issue

Judicial Engagement Catching on in Courts Across the Nation

“My Streets! My Eats!” Campaign Champions Chicago’s Mobile Food Vendors

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