Free the monks, free entrepreneurs nationwide

Shira Rawlinson Contributor
Font Size:

In Louisiana, monks are under attack.

Quite literally.  In an outrageous example of economic protectionism at its worst, a group of monks is facing crippling fines and even jail for the “sin” of selling simple monastic caskets.

Thankfully, they’re fighting back.

Ask yourself this question: Can the government restrict economic liberty just to enrich a group of politically favored insiders?  Remarkably, our courts have left it unclear.  The monks seek to answer this question – with a major federal lawsuit.

Specifically, the Institute for Justice and its client, Saint Joseph Abbey, have filed suit today to challenge the constitutionality of Louisiana’s outrageous requirement that the monks of the Abbey become licensed funeral directors and convert their monastery into a licensed funeral home in order to sell simple handmade wooden caskets.

For centuries, monks have supported themselves with common trades such as farming, brewing beer and harvesting timber.  Now, the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Covington, La., hand-make plain wooden caskets.  Selling caskets helps the monks pay for food and healthcare, and helps them share their belief in the simplicity of life and death.

But selling caskets has also turned the monks into criminals.  The State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is now going after the Abbey for selling caskets without a government-issued license.

Under Louisiana law, it is a crime for anyone but a licensed funeral director to sell “funeral merchandise,” which includes caskets.  To sell caskets legally, the monks would have to abandon their calling for one full year to apprentice at a licensed funeral home, learn unnecessary skills and take a funeral industry test.  They would also have to convert their monastery into a “funeral establishment” by, among other things, installing equipment for embalming human remains.

For over two years, the Abbey has been embroiled in a dispute with the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors about its plan to sell simple, handmade wooden caskets to the faithful.  The State Board, doing the bidding of the politically powerful funeral industry, has threatened the Abbey with steep fines and Louisiana law even provides for jail time.

This isn’t about protecting public health and safety.  A casket is just a box, and one isn’t even necessary for burial.  This law is on the books, and the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is enforcing it, because the cartel of licensed funeral directors wants the lucrative funeral market to itself, even at the expense of the monks.

If the government and the funeral lobby are willing to go after monks, then no one in America is safe from organized special interests and their allies in state legislatures.

In a time of 10 percent unemployment and widespread economic pessimism, this case raises one of today’s most important constitutional questions:  May the government restrict economic liberty just to enrich a group of politically favored insiders such as licensed funeral directors?

This case has important national implications.  Our Federal Appellate courts are split on the issue of economic protectionism.  The monks’ case provides the Supreme Court a chance to finally settle the matter.

We at the Institute for Justice are confident that the monks will prevail.  And when they do, they will free not just themselves, but entrepreneurs nationwide.

One of the most important American liberties is the right to earn an honest living in the occupation of our choice without arbitrary government interference.  Louisiana’s casket licensing law violates that right.

But not for much longer.

Shira Rawlinson is the Communications Coordinator for the Institute for Justice.  She can be reached at srawlinson@ij.org.