Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Casket-Making Monks Await Court's Decision

Lousiana is one of only three states that restrict the sale of caskets to licensed funeral directors. The state has a history of protecting the funeral industry from competition at the expense of funeral consumers. See here for posts on LA regulators working to protect the funeral industry from the public.

On June 7, 21012, an attorney for the Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Tammany Parish argued before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a 1932 Louisiana law requiring anyone selling a casket to be a licensed funeral director is unconstitutional and has no rationale other than "pure economic protectionism."

The monks, who make about 30 cypress caskets a month at their St. Joseph Abbey Woodworks, received a favorable ruling last year from U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval, who struck down the Louisiana law, saying it created an unfair industry monopoly.

Scott Bullock, an attorney with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm that is representing the monks, said the state law, which requires anyone selling a casket to have a funeral director's license, is "pure economic protectionism" that favors one private class and therefore is unconstitutional.

"It is irrational to require somebody to become a funeral director just to sell a box," Bullock said. "It is irrational to require somebody to give up two years of their life, install an embalming room and turn their abbey into a funeral establishment simply to sell a box. That's our fundamental point."

The 36 monks of the 121-year-old abbey decided a few years ago to sell caskets with simple white cloth interiors for $1,500 to $2,000 to support the abbey, which does not receive funding from the Roman Catholic Church.

About 50 to 60 of the caskets were sold, beginning in 2007, before the funeral board, acting on a complaint filed by a funeral home, subpoenaed the order in March and threatened fines. The monks tried to get an exemption from the regulations in 2008 and 2010, but legislators rejected the requests.

Abbot Justin Brown said making and selling caskets is in keeping with a 1,500-year tradition of self-support. "For centuries, Benedictine monks have been entrepreneurs," he said. The monks of St. Joseph Abbey farmed and harvested wood for years, a business that sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Brown said. The caskets drew public attention at funerals for monks and two Louisiana bishops, leading to requests to purchase them. In 2007, the monks converted part of the abbey into a woodworking shop. Three monks usually work on the caskets.

"All we want to do is sell these simple wood caskets to our friends and the public," Abbot Brown said.
A decision from the 5th Circuit is expected in three to six months.

"We're hopeful and prayerful," Abbot Justin said. "The emphasis is on prayerful."

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