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Federal Court Denies Motion to Dismiss Archdiocese of Newark Headstone Case

Arlington, Va.— Late Friday, a federal judge denied the state of New Jersey’s motion to dismiss the Archdiocese of Newark’s constitutional challenge to a law that makes it illegal for the Archdiocese to sell headstones to its parishioners. The court ruled that the Archdiocese’s case deserves a full hearing.

The Institute for Justice and the Archdiocese filed suit last July, arguing that the new law violated the Archdiocese’s economic liberty because it forbids religious cemeteries from selling headstones and other monuments to parishioners. The General Assembly passed the law at the behest of the Monument Builders Association of New Jersey, the lobbying arm of the tombstone-dealer industry. Those businesses did not want to compete with the Archdiocese and others, and so—like too many special interests in America—asked the government to outlaw competition rather than lower its prices or improve quality. Governor Chris Christie signed the bill into law on March 23, 2015.

“Contrary to the government’s view, judges are not just rubber stamps for the legislature,” said Greg Reed, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “We intend to get this anti-competitive law struck down not only for the benefit of the Archdiocese, but also to set precedent that will protect entrepreneurs and consumers everywhere from special interests, like the monument builders here.”

The state argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed without any hearing of evidence because the government has essentially unchecked power to impose regulations on the economy. It also argued that power includes the authority to restrict competition simply to benefit politically connected insiders such as the private monument businesses, even if doing so harms other entrepreneurs and the public at large.

In rejecting the motion to dismiss, the court concluded that this case should be analyzed the same way as a series of similar cases across the country striking down laws that restricted economic liberty. In particular, the court noted that the Archdiocese’s challenge resembled another IJ case out of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down a Louisiana law that prevented the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey from selling their caskets to the public because they were not licensed by the state as funeral directors.

Andrew P. Schafer, executive director of the Archdiocese’s Catholic Cemeteries said, “We are grateful for the court’s wisdom and outcome for allowing this to proceed in hopes that we will once again be permitted to offer an option and valuable service that benefits many of the Catholic families we serve.”

The court ordered the parties to come up with a schedule for gathering evidence and submitting it along with legal briefing for a final decision. The Archdiocese expects that process to be finished by the end of the year and for the court to make a decision in early 2017.

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