Louisiana Monks Win Casket Case

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · July 21, 2011

New Orleans, La.— A federal court today ruled (read the court’s decision) that Louisiana’s government-imposed monopoly on casket sales in the state is unconstitutional, closing the lid on the economic protection scheme and resurrecting an opportunity for local monks to provide for themselves by creating and selling their handmade caskets. The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey of Saint Benedict, La., and the Institute for Justice, which represents the order in court, had filed suit to fight Louisiana’s government-imposed casket cartel.

Under Louisiana law, it was a crime for anyone but a government-licensed funeral director to sell “funeral merchandise,” which includes caskets. To sell caskets legally, the monks would have had 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 Honorable Stanwood Duval of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled, “Simply put, there is nothing in the licensing procedures that bestows any benefit to the public in the context of the retail sale of caskets. The license has no bearing on the manufacturing and sale of coffins. It appears that the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry which reason the Court has previously found not to be a valid government interest standing alone to provide a constitutionally valid reason for these provisions.”

The ruling continued, “With the advent of the internet, consumers can now buy caskets from retailers across the country including Wal-Mart and online retailers such as Amazon.com. This fact is salient in that Louisianians can indeed purchase from these out of state retailers who are not subject to the Act. Indeed, with the exception of an April 13, 2009 Cease and Desist Order issued to National Memorial Planning, the [Embalmers and Funeral Directors] Board has not issued any other Cease and Desist orders to out-of state casket retailers in the last ten years.”

“This is a slam-dunk victory for the Abbey and for all entrepreneurs who simply wish to pursue their chosen occupation free of unreasonable government interference,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents the monks. “As the judge recognized, the real reason for this law was economic protectionism for the funeral industry cartel, and that is not a legitimate government interest,” he added.

“We are absolutely thrilled that the court protected our economic liberty rights to provide caskets to willing consumers,” said Abbot Justin Brown, who heads up the Saint Joseph Abbey. “This is a great day for the Abbey, the U.S. Constitution, and all Louisianans. “

IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes added, “This is a constitutional victory for all of the Davids out there facing down the government Goliath. The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey are now an integral part of recent cases by federal courts across the country that protect the constitutional right to earn an honest living. If the State of Louisiana decides to appeal, we will vindicate economic liberty again, and we will keep going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor said, “The Constitution does not allow the government to keep you out of business just to make a cartel of industry insiders richer at the expense of consumers and other entrepreneurs. This is an opinion that will not only help our clients, but will also help other entrepreneurs nationwide who find their right to economic liberty violated by state and local regulators who often pass laws designed merely to protect existing businesses from competition. This is a great day for freedom.”

In its ruling, the court wrote, “The Court finds no rational relationship between the Act and ‘public health and safety.’ No evidence was presented to demonstrate that requiring the purchase of caskets from licensed funeral directors aids the public welfare.”

The decision continued, “The provisions of the Act as they relate to the retail sale of caskets by persons other than funeral directors do not protect consumers; the prohibition against Plaintiffs’ selling caskets does not protect the public health and welfare. The provisions simply protect a well-organized industry that seeks to maintain a strict hold on this business. . . . Likewise these laws violate the Equal Protection Clause, since the Act in essence treats two distinct and different occupations as the same.”

Finally, the ruling stated, “In sum, the arguments made by defendants [those defending the casket cartel] are hollow . . . . There is no relation between the obtaining of a funeral license and the ability to manufacture and sell a casket. The only protection afforded by the Act is the economic protection of the funeral directors which this Court has held not to be in and of itself a rational basis for the Act under the Constitution of the United States for the reasons stated in its previous order.”