Free the Monks and Free Enterprise: Challenging Louisiana’s Casket Cartel in Federal Court

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · August 11, 2010

Arlington, Va.—Can the government restrict economic liberty just to enrich a group of politically favored insiders?

That’s the question the Institute for Justice (IJ) and its client, Saint Joseph Abbey of Saint Benedict, La., have taken to federal court in challenging the constitutionality of Louisiana’s outrageous requirement that the monks of the Abbey must be licensed as funeral directors and convert their monastery into a licensed funeral home in order to sell their handmade wooden caskets.


“We are not a wealthy monastery, and we want to sell our plain wooden caskets to pay for food, health care, and the education of our monks,” said IJ client Abbot Justin Brown.

Under Louisiana law, it is a crime for anyone but a licensed funeral director to sell “funeral merchandise,” which includes caskets. To sell caskets legally, the monks would have to abandon their calling for one full year to apprentice at a licensed funeral home, and convert their monastery into a “funeral establishment” by, among other things, installing equipment for embalming.
The State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is now going after Saint Joseph Abbey for the “sin” of selling caskets without a government-issued license.


“A casket is just a box and you do not even need one for burial,” said IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock. “There is no legitimate health or safety reason to license casket sellers.”

The only reason the state of Louisiana is preventing the Abby from selling its caskets is to protect the profits of the state’s funeral directors. The law is on the books, and the State Board is enforcing it, because licensed funeral directors want the funeral merchandise market to themselves.

“Economic liberty is a constitutional right that matters to everyone, even monks,” said Jeff Rowes, an IJ senior attorney. “If government and special interests are willing to team up against monks, then no one is safe and we need judges to enforce the right to earn an honest living free from illegitimate interference,” he added.

“The monks’ story is just one example of a national problem in which industry cartels use government power to protect themselves from competition. Protecting economic liberty and ending government-enforced cartels require judicial engagement – a willingness by the courts to confront what is often really going on when the government enacts licensing laws supposedly to protect the public,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice.