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La. Monks Win Right to Build, Sell Caskets

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) A federal judge on Thursday (July 21) said a state law that limits the sale of caskets to licensed funeral directors and establishments is unconstitutional.
The ruling came in a case brought by the monks at St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, La., who alleged the law amounted to unconstitutional economic protectionism for the funeral industry.

The abbey opened a woodshop in 2007 to sell handcrafted cypress caskets for $1,500 to $2,000, which is cheaper than some caskets from a typical funeral home. The abbey hoped the sales would finance medical and educational needs for more than 30 monks. The state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors issued a cease-and-desist letter before the abbey could sell a single casket. The abbey defied those demands and began selling the caskets anyway.

In his ruling, Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. found that the law violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Duval wrote “there is no rational basis for the state of Louisiana to require persons who seek to enter into the retailing of caskets to undergo the training and expense necessary to comply with these rules.”

Lawyer Scott Bullock, a member of the Benedictine monks’ legal team, called the statute in question “irrational.”

“Economic protectionism for the funeral industry … is not a legitimate government interest,” said Bullock, who works for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice. “The abbey will be able to lawfully sell their caskets to willing consumers. That is a great victory for the monks, for the U.S. Constitution, and for Louisiana consumers.”

St. Joseph Abbey’s leader, Abbot Justin Brown, sounded relieved about the decision. The funeral board at one point threatened to jail him or fine him heavily if the abbey’s woodshop sold funeral boxes without a proper license.

“We did not go into this trial because we wanted to make a statement or to in any way be in opposition to anyone,” Brown said. “We went in simply because we felt that this was an unfair law.”

At a June court hearing, lawyers for the funeral industry argued that licensed vendors are in a better position to help customers select appropriate caskets because they are trained to consider issues no one else is, such as the deceased’s body size and burial site.

State funeral board attorney Preston Lee Hayes said he expects his clients to appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If the ruling is still upheld there, the defendants can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviews only a very small minority of cases.

“We disagree with Judge Duval’s decision,” Hayes added. “We feel that the evidence introduced at trial showed there is a rational basis for the law.”

(Ramon Antonio Vargas writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)