Monks Win Again!

June 3, 2013

In March, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous final decision in favor of the casket-making monks of Saint Joseph Abbey. The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors now intends to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court, setting up what could be a historic clash over the right to earn an honest living.

The federal appeals court squarely rejected Louisiana’s argument that it was constitutional to enact a law forbidding anyone but a government-licensed funeral director from selling caskets, especially if the only purpose of the law is to make funeral directors wealthier by limiting competition. In short, the opinion is a total vindication for the monks and a complete repudiation of the state board’s nearly six-year campaign to deny the monks their economic liberty.

This case arose when the brothers of Saint Joseph Abbey, a century-old Benedictine monastery in Covington, La., began to sell their handmade caskets in 2007 to support the monks’ educational and health-care expenses. The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors moved to shut down the fledgling business before it sold even one casket because it was a crime in Louisiana for anyone but a government-licensed funeral director to sell caskets to the public.

Parishioners at the abbey’s church and others in the community were eager to buy the beautiful yet simple wooden caskets, appreciating that the monks make them from scratch, pray while constructing them, and bless each one.

Being non-confrontational, the monks tried to change the law in Louisiana in two consecutive legislative terms, only to have both efforts crushed by funeral industry pressure. With no other recourse, the monks teamed with IJ to bring suit in federal court on the ground that this arbitrary restriction served no legitimate public purpose and existed only to funnel money to the funeral-director cartel.

The 5th Circuit’s landmark decision—one of only a handful of federal appellate court decisions since the New Deal to protect economic liberty—will benefit millions of Americans across the country struggling to earn an honest living under the weight of government licensing rules that create barriers to entry and suppress competition.

The 5th Circuit—which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi—held that laws amounting to “naked transfers of wealth” to politically favored insiders are unconstitutional. The court also rejected Louisiana’s argument that virtually any justification, no matter how imaginary and fantastical, was sufficient to uphold a law from constitutional attack: “The great deference due state economic regulation does not demand judicial blindness to the history of a challenged rule or the context of its adoption nor does it require courts to accept nonsensical explanations for regulation.”

But the monks’ fight may not be over. The state board is now drafting its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court agrees to hear fewer than one percent of petitions, the state board’s chances are far better than most.

The state board intends to argue that there is a fundamental disagreement among the federal courts of appeal about the Constitution’s protection of economic liberty. In 2004, in another IJ case, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government can restrict economic liberty simply to make connected industry cartels better off, ruling that “dishing out special favors” to industry insiders is the “national pastime” of state and local governments. In the monks’ case, by contrast, the 5th Circuit—which followed a different line of cases, including a 2002 IJ case—ruled that pure economic protectionism was not a legitimate government goal.

The main purpose of the Supreme Court is to resolve these sorts of disagreements among the federal courts. That means that IJ and the monks may be walking up the steps of the Supreme Court next year to defend economic liberty for all Americans from overreaching government. That is a journey we are prepared to make.

Stay tuned!

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