St. Joseph Abbey casket sales can't be stopped by funeral industry, federal court rules
A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that monks at St. Joseph Abbey near Covington should be allowed to sell handmade caskets from their monastery, despite opposition from Louisiana's funeral home directors who claimed a sole right to sell caskets in the state. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision to strike down a state law limiting casket sales to licensed members of the funeral industry.
The decision marks a victory for the Benedictine monastery, which has struggled for several years for the right to sell simple, wooden caskets built by monks in a woodshop to fund their medical and education needs. In 2007, the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors ordered the abbey to cease sales after a funeral home owner filed a formal complaint.
"We're just really thankful we can continue, because it means a lot to people," said St. Joseph Abbey's Abbot Justin Brown on Wednesday. "Every couple of weeks or so, I get a letter or a note or a phone call from people who have had our casket for a loved one, and they all are just so grateful and appreciative. It made them feel so good that they knew these caskets were made with love and prayer."
St. Joseph Abbey's lawyers said while the Fifth Circuit ruled against the Louisiana law, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar law limiting casket sales in Oklahoma in 2004. The divided opinion now leaves an opening for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh-in, if the Louisiana board decides to appeal, lawyers said.
The funeral directors' board referred questions to its lawyer, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In 2010, the abbey filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the state law as unconstitutional. The law limited casket sales to licensed funeral directors at state-licensed funeral homes. Directors must undergo an apprenticeship and finish 30 hours of college courses, and funeral homes must meet detailed requirements, such as a parlor to fit 30 people and room for viewing six caskets.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. found that the law improperly shielded the funeral home industry's monopoly at the cost of consumers. The state board, which appealed the decision, argued that the law actually protected consumers and public safety.
In its opinion issued Wednesday, the 5th Circuit decisively laid out why it disagreed with the board: licensed funeral directors don't receive special training in caskets; Louisiana law does not prevent consumers from buying third-party caskets from outside Louisiana, including online sales; and the state doesn't require a person to be buried in a casket, the court noted.
Despite a state's right to decide on its own economic regulations, courts are not required "to accept nonsensical explanations for regulation," the 5th Circuit said.
"The principle we protect from the hand of the state today protects an equally vital core principle -- the taking of wealth and handing it to others when it comes not as economic protectionism in service of the public good but as 'economic' protection of the rule makers' pockets," the court said.
Funeral homes, not independent sellers, have been "the problem for consumers with their bundling of product and markups of caskets," the court said. Even so, Louisiana's Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law already protects consumers from tactics by all sellers of caskets, the court said.
The abbey pursued the case with the The Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based law firm focused on civil liberties and libertarian ideas. Lawyer Darpana Sheth said the ruling is "a total vindication of the monks and a complete repudiation of what the state board did."
For the abbey, Brown said he is looking forward to the future now that the legal struggle appears to be ending. Casket sales help sustain the monastery, he said.
"We've always felt that we had a good cause and that right was on our side," Brown said.
St. Joseph Abbey casket sales can't be stopped by funeral industry, federal court rules | NOLA.com
Re: St. Joseph Abbey casket sales can't be stopped by funeral industry, federal court rules
A final update ... now from the Supreme Court
In a decision hailed as a win for small businesses everywhere, the U.S. Supreme Court this week put “the final nail in the coffin,” of the peculiar case pitting the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors against a local abbey of casket-making Benedictine monks.
"I was hesitant at the beginning to file the lawsuit. But it's the best thing that could have happened to our business," Abbot Justin Brown of St Joseph Abbey told the Los Angeles Times.
"We had all this excellent publicity, and now we are selling more caskets than we had ever expected. I think a lot of people heard about our case against the funeral directors and decided to buy one of our caskets."
The Times writes the battle was begun when the state board mandated that the monks stop selling the rudimentary cypress boxes they have long hand-crafted – and used to bury deceased colleagues.
Read more below
Louisiana monks win right to craft caskets after fight with funeral directors | Fox News
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