Monks claim final victory in fight over casket sales

A five-year legal battle waged by a group of Benedictine monks against the Louisiana funeral industry was laid to rest Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which let stand an appellate ruling striking down a state law giving funeral directors a monopoly on the sale of caskets to the public.

“It’s a great day for us, and we’re very thankful that this five-year battle is over,” said Abbot Justin Brown, who leads St. Joseph Abbey, a community of 34 monks whose primary work is educating future priests at St. Joseph Seminary near Covington and running a retreat center.

“We’re not in the business of going to court,” he said.

For decades the monks made wooden caskets to bury their brothers.

In 2007, the abbey formed St. Joseph Woodworks to sell the simple cypress caskets to anyone who wanted one. They hoped to generate money for the community’s educational and medical expenses.

State law requires anyone selling caskets to undergo funeral director training and to set up as a funeral parlor with embalming equipment.

Before the monks could sell their first casket, the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors filed a cease and desist order.

The monks filed suit in federal court in 2010, arguing the law served no legitimate public purpose and existed only to protect the funeral industry.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval struck down the law in 2011, and the monks began selling caskets.

While the abbey was back in business and making about 200 caskets each year, their legal struggle continued as the state board appealed Duval’s ruling.

The monks were victorious again in March before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed with Duval.

The funeral board in July decided to take its case to the nation’s highest court.

The funeral board referred calls to attorney Michael Rasch, who did not return a call for comment.

In court filings, Louisiana’s board argued state law protected consumers.

Attorneys with the Institute of Justice, a libertarian legal firm that represented the abbey, called the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal a final victory for the monks, affirming their right to earn a living without interference from unreasonable government regulations.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of review puts the final nail in the coffin for the state board’s protectionist and outrageous campaign against the monks,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the group, in a statement.

“The abbey’s victory in this case will not only protect their right to sell caskets, but the rights of entrepreneurs throughout the country.”

The Institute of Justice said the monks’ victory is one of only a handful of cases since the 1930s where a federal court has enforced a constitutional right to economic liberty.

It’s not clear exactly how broad an impact the Supreme Court decision not to hear the case will be, as there is a split in the appellate circuits on whether state legislatures can write laws that essentially favor some businesses over others.

That split is part of the reason legal observers thought the Supreme Court might review the case.

The 5th Circuit, which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, found in the monks’ case that Louisiana’s law didn’t result in protections for the public, but instead protected the industry.

Without a valid governmental purpose, these kind of laws can be “aptly described as a naked transfer of wealth,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in a decision also joined by two other judges. Yet the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came to the opposite conclusion in an Oklahoma casket case, finding that state legislatures can properly set economic restrictions, even if they benefit one group over another.

Darpana Sheth, a lawyer with the Institute of Justice, said the 5th Circuit is the third federal appeals court to rule that economic protectionism is not a legitimate state interest, and although the 10th Circuit’s decision still stands, the courts are turning away from that ruling.

“Only the Supreme Court can resolve this split, but the Court’s rejection of the funeral board’s petition in this case signifies the clear outlier status of the 10th Circuit’s decision,” she said in an email.

The abbot said the monks are just relieved that, for them, the issue is finally resolved.

While St. Joseph Abbey had celebrations following their previous two legal victories, Brown said the monks likely will observe this final one “quietly in our prayers.”

“It’s great that we’ve been able to secure our own economic liberty and protect the economic liberty of others,” he said. “We always felt the Constitution was on our side.”

The monks had no idea they would become part of legal history when they launched the casket business.

“We didn’t know Louisiana had a law that made it a crime — it was a shock,” Brown said.

If the monks had known about the law, he said, they probably would not have started the business.

Brown said the abbey has received strong public support.

“People have been so supportive, Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers as well,” he said.

Before Duval’s ruling, the abbey had only made about 30 caskets, but the business is now growing.

This is probably the first year that the enterprise is beginning to generate money for the abbey’s needs, Brown said.

The monks charge $1,500 for the monastic model and $2,000 for the traditional model.