Louisiana monks win right to craft caskets after fight with funeral directors

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.


The board, which The Times says is almost entirely comprised of embalmers and funeral directors, based its ruling on a regulation that only those licensed by the state could sell coffins.

The abbey reportedly began selling the caskets for between $1,500 and $2,000 -- or far less than funeral homes sell traditional coffins -- after Hurricane Katrina stunted its traditional business or selling timber.

But the monks would not go quietly, suing five years ago under the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from, "depriv(ing) any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

And the federal judge who initially heard the case – as well as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans -- agreed.

The Times writes that in declaring the state’s regulation unconstitutional, 5th Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote, “Mere economic protection of a particular industry" is not a "legitimate governmental purpose.”

Higginbotham reportedly added, “The great deference due state economic regulation does not demand judicial blindness … nor does it require courts to accept nonsensical explanations for regulation."

Predictably, the state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for relief, but the nation’s highest judicial body refused to hear the case, leaving the lower courts’ decision intact.

According to The Times, the ruling was hailed as a big win for small business by the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which has long championed similar free-market cases, nationwide.

The Supreme Court’s decision “puts the final nail in the coffin for the state board's protectionist and outrageous campaign against the monks," said Scott Bullock, a lawyer for the group.

Click for the story from The Los Angeles Times.