Funeral directors want U.S. Supreme Court to hear monk casket case

Louisiana’s funeral directors are heading to the U.S. Supreme Court in their fight with the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey over who can sell caskets in this state, filing an appeal Wednesday that seeks to overturn the monks’ March appellate victory.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval’s 2011 ruling striking down a state law that made it a crime for anyone other than a licensed funeral director to sell a casket in Louisiana.

St. Joseph’s Abbey, near Covington, has been making simple cypress caskets to bury its own brothers for decades. In 2007, the abbey formed St. Joseph Woodworks to sell the hand-crafted caskets to the public, an undertaking meant to help pay for the medical and educational needs of its small community of Benedictine monks.

The state board issued a cease and desist order before the first casket could be sold, and in 2010 the monastery filed suit to challenge the law, which requires those selling caskets to undergo training as funeral directors and to set up as a funeral parlor, with embalming equipment.

The Institute of Justice, an Arlington, Va., libertarian legal firm representing the monks, argued Louisiana’s law served no legitimate public purpose, instead merely bolstering what it called the “funeral director cartel.’’

The decisions to strike down the law “affirmed the constitutional right to earn an honest living without unreasonable government interference,’’ the Institute of Justice said.

The state funeral directors board referred questions about the case to its attorney, Michael Rasch. He did not return a call for comment Thursday.

The petition by the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors argues the Supreme Court should hear the case because there is a split in appellate circuits about whether state legislatures are allowed to enact laws that essentially favor some businesses over others. In previous filings, board attorneys have argued the licensing requirements protect consumers.

The Supreme Court doesn’t have to hear the case, but attorneys for the monks agree that the case is ripe for high court consideration. “The Supreme Court exists to resolve exactly those types of disagreement,” Jeff Rowes, one of the monks’ attorneys, told the Associated Press after the 5th Circuit decision. 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, the Institute of Justice said.

But the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came to the opposite conclusion in a similar case in Oklahoma, saying judges can’t second-guess economic restrictions passed by state legislatures because their stated purpose is to protect consumers.

“While baseball may be the national pastime of the citizenry, dishing out special economic benefits to certain in-state industries remains the favored pastime of state and local governments,” Chief Judge Deanell Reece Tacha wrote in a unanimous decision in the Oklahoma case.

Louisiana’s petition notes that the 6th and 9th Circuits side with the 5th and that the 4th and 11th Circuits side with 10th.

The monks have until mid-August to respond.

“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,” Scott Bullock, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice said in a prepared statement.

In a video interview on the Institute of Justice website, Abbot Justin Brown noted that the monks have been making caskets for 100 years and believe they “have a right to an honest living through the building and sale of our abbey caskets.’’

He said people who ask for them “want to share in that noble simplicity that our coffins express.’’

The monks began selling caskets again in 2011, following Judge Duval’s ruling. Brown told the Associated Press in March that they make about 20 caskets per month.

The cost, according to the abbey’s website, is $1,500 for the monastic model and $2,000 for the traditional model. The abbey does not charge a fee for storage, the site says.