Monks’ casket trial decision postponed

June 9, 2011
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The monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey will have to wait a few weeks to hear the decision of their three-hour trial in U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana Monday. U. S. District Judge Stanwood Duval heard arguments from both sides but has postponed his decision until sometime in July.

“A trial is a search for the truth and the truth here is that there is no legitimate reason to deprive the monks of their constitutional right to earn an honest living,” said Institute for Justice senior attorney Jeff Rowes. “A casket is just a box and you don’t even need a casket for burialÖThe bureaucrats and special interests are so out of control in this country that not even monks are safe.”

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The monks began building caskets to provide an income. They receive no support from the Catholic Church. In the past, they have farmed and harvested timber on their land but in the 1990s were advised by financial advisors to find a new way to support themselves.

The work is described as “sell simple wooden caskets as part of their ministry and to raise funds for their monastery.” As requests came in, the monks launched their business, Saint Joseph Woodworks, on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 2007.

Now, the simple wooden boxes are at the center of a controversy involving the monks and the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

Under Louisiana law, it is a crime for anyone but a licensed funeral director to sell “funeral merchandise,” which includes caskets. However, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that funeral homes are required to and must agree to use caskets bought elsewhere without charging a surcharge or handling fee to those who wish to supply their own casket. The plain cypress caskets from the Abbey are priced at $1,500 or $2,000, depending upon the style. “We have the right to make an honest living,” said Abbott Justin Brown. “We are not a wealthy monastery. We need the income for health care and education.”

According to the lawsuit filed by the Institute on behalf of the Abbey against the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, the complaint filed is for “declaratory and injunctive relief” and states that “Through the enforcement of arbitrary, excessive and anachronistic occupational licensing laws and regulations, the State of Louisiana currently prohibits the monks from pursuing work.”

According to the Institute for Justice Website, the attorneys were trying to prove the following:

There is no hypothetical public health and safety justification for forcing consumers to buy caskets only from government-licensed funeral directors.

The law directly interferes with the right under federal law to purchase caskets where consumers want; and

Only three states even have this law on the books and Louisiana is the only state that actually enforces this needless restriction on entrepreneur and consumer freedom.

The only plausible explanation for this law is that funeral directors want to keep casket sales to themselves and use government power to protect themselves from competition.

“The government’s position is that the citizens of Louisiana can’t handle and don’t deserve the freedom to buy a casket from whoever they want,” explained Scott Bullock, an IJ senior attorney. “The government thinks the people of Louisiana are children who can’t be trusted and have to be forced to buy their caskets only from government-licensed funeral directors. Except for Oklahoma, no state treats their citizens this way.”

“The monks’ story is just one example of a national problem in which industry cartels use government power to protect themselves from competition,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “Protecting economic liberty and ending government-enforced cartels require judicial engagement-a willingness by the courts to confront what is often really going on when the government enacts licensing laws supposedly to protect the public.”

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