May 27, 2016

Readers of Liberty & Law do not have to be convinced that you should not need to become a licensed funeral director to sell a box. And you will remember IJ persuaded the 5th and 6th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals of that same thing when they struck down similar restrictions on casket sales in Louisiana and Tennessee. Now we are bringing those victories to Alabama with Shelia Champion, owner of The Good Earth Burial Ground in Hazel Green, Alabama.

The Good Earth is a “green” cemetery—part of an emerging trend to make funerals more intimate, less expensive and more environmentally friendly. The Good Earth is a wild, untended forest; Shelia will only allow burial in biodegradable caskets or shrouds and allows embalming only with non-toxic, biodegradable chemicals. She also encourages families to be more involved in the burial process and provides guidance on home funerals. The Good Earth is both a modest means to supplement Shelia’s retirement income and a meaningful way for her to serve the community.

But of course, it would not be an IJ case if there were not someone in government standing in this entrepreneur’s way. Shelia’s caskets are literally cardboard boxes, her urns could be made of cornstarch and her shrouds might be quilts. But under Alabama law, it is a crime for anyone other than a licensed funeral director to sell any of these things. Alabama forces entrepreneurs like Shelia to spend years of their lives and thousands of dollars to get a funeral director’s license or face one year in jail and up to $6,000 in fines—just for selling a box.

Alabama’s casket-sales restriction exists for one reason only: to protect licensed funeral directors from competition. Shelia’s inexpensive, environmentally simple approach to end-of-life planning is a threat to the funeral industry status quo. Innovation requires the freedom to think outside the box—or, in Shelia’s case, to make that box affordable and biodegradable.

The government cannot restrict entrepreneurs’ right to make an honest living just to protect the private financial interests of a privileged few. There is stark disagreement among the federal courts about whether this sort of protectionism is constitutional.

That is why this case is about more than caskets. This case is a part of IJ’s long-term effort to present that issue in federal and state courts across the U.S. Our ultimate objective is to put the question of economic protectionism before the U.S. Supreme Court. A casket may be just a box, but the fight for economic liberty will vindicate the rights of all entrepreneurs.

Renée Flaherty is an IJ attorney.

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