Louisiana’s casket cartel stays buried

Darpana M. Sheth Attorney, Institute for Justice

This weekend, on All Saints Day, the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey, a small monastery outside of New Orleans, celebrated the sixth anniversary of entering the casket-making business. But after a years-long battle with the state of Louisiana, culminating in a major constitutional decision in their favor, it will only be the first year they can sell their simple wooden caskets without fear of government-imposed fines and criminal prosecution.

Following the Benedictine Order’s principle of self-sufficiency, the Abbey opened Saint Joseph Woodworks on November 1, 2007 to build and sell simple monastic caskets — the type the monks had long used to bury their own. The handmade caskets would draw the attention of parishioners and others who appreciated their dignified simplicity. Unfortunately, they also drew the attention of funeral directors who turned to state enforcers for help in squashing their new monastic competitors.

In Louisiana, only licensed funeral directors were allowed to sell caskets. Before the monks sold even one casket, the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors ordered the monks to stop selling caskets unless they both complied with the licensing requirements for funeral directors and converted their monastery into a licensed funeral home.

Threatened with thousands of dollars in fines and possible criminal prosecution, the Abbey tried to change the law. But after the funeral lobby blocked two attempts to reform the law, the monks turned to the courts. They teamed up with the Institute for Justice, the national law firm for liberty, to challenge the constitutionality of a licensing law that served no other purpose but to protect the coffers of funeral directors. The monks argued that naked economic protectionism is not a constitutional use of government power.

And in 2011, a federal district court judge sided with the monks. The funeral board wasn’t happy and asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the ruling. But the 5th Circuit denounced Louisiana’s licensing law as a “naked transfer of wealth” and “economic protection of the rulemakers’ pockets.” In doing so, the court properly recognized that established businesses often work with elected officials to shut out new competition.

In a last-ditch effort, the state board sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court. On October 15, the high court declined to hear the state’s appeal, handing the monks their long-awaited final victory and removing the threat of prosecution for good.

The Supreme Court’s decision also gives a green light to third-party casket businesses, both in and out of the Pelican State, to enter the market and offer even more choices and better prices to consumers.

But this case has wide-ranging implications beyond the funeral industry. These federal court decisions reaffirm the vital role courts play in protecting individual liberty, including economic liberty, which is the right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable government regulations. The 5th Circuit’s ruling is one of only a handful of federal appellate decisions protecting this right since the 1930s. Entrepreneurs everywhere should be free from unreasonable regulations that serve no other purpose but to protect industry insiders.

When the monks began their enterprise, they hoped that their wooden caskets would not only support their community, but also give comfort to the faithful. Now, their years-long battle also restores faith in the U.S. Constitution as a charter of liberty for entrepreneurs nationwide.

Darpana Sheth is an attorney with the Institute for Justice and represented Saint Joseph Abbey in its challenge to Louisiana’s licensing law.