Louisiana Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Overturn Casket-Making Monks’ Victory

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · July 17, 2013

Arlington, Va.—Does the U.S. Constitution allow the government to pass economic regulations with no public benefit solely to enrich special interests at the expense of would-be competitors and consumers? That is the question that the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors asks the U.S. Supreme Court to review in the Board’s bid to reverse the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals victory of the Benedictine monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Covington, La. This win struck down Louisiana’s law requiring a funeral director’s license to sell a casket, and affirmed the constitutional right to earn an honest living without unreasonable government interference.

“The brothers have been resolute throughout this entire case and they are prepared to take this historic fight to our nation’s highest court to protect their rights and the rights of all entrepreneurs,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock.

The monks’ victory is one of only a handful of cases since the 1930s in which federal courts have enforced the constitutional right to economic liberty. Louisiana’s petition to the Supreme Court, filed yesterday, has the potential to set up a historic confrontation between economic liberty and the long-running abuse of government power for private financial gain.

READ THE STATE’S PETITION: http://iam.ij.org/CasketsPetition

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 late 2007 to support the monks’ educational and healthcare 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. The monks brought 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.

“With the filing of this petition, the board continues to do the bidding of the funeral cartel to protect their bottom line, not the public,” explained Darpana Sheth, an IJ attorney representing the monks.

There is disagreement among the federal courts of appeal—called a circuit split—on the question that Louisiana’s petition presents. The Supreme Court’s primary duty is to resolve such disagreements. The 5th Circuit—which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—held in the monks’ case that laws amounting to “naked transfers of wealth” to politically favored insiders are unconstitutional. By contrast, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar law in Oklahoma in 2004, finding no constitutional problem with its conclusion that “dishing out special economic benefits” to industry insiders was the “national pastime” of state and local governments. Louisiana’s petition notes that the 6th and 9th Circuits side with the 5th, and that the 4th and 11th Circuits side with 10th.

In their response to the petition, which is due in mid-August, the monks will not dispute that a legitimate circuit split exists. They are prepared to go to the Supreme Court to vindicate their constitutional rights and the right of every American to earn an honest living.

IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes said, “Americans didn’t create a nation of free people so that state governments can use their power to make private financial interests rich at the expense of liberty and the public. If the Supreme Court takes this case, we will win.”