Remember the federal court case about the monks at St. Joseph Abbey outside of Covington who were set upon by the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors for making caskets without a license?
It appears the case is finally over.
And the monks won.
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.”
The case is a big win for the Institute for Justice, the public-interest law firm out of Virginia which specializes in pro-bono lawsuits against idiotic and burdensome regulations imposed by states on people just trying to make a living. IJ has jumped in on the side of food truck operators in Chicago, florists in Louisiana, limo drivers in Nashville and hairbraiders in Washington State, among others, who are beset with the same kinds of stupid regulations and licensure requirements, and now has a landmark legal skin on the wall.
The 5th Circuit’s landmark decision—one of only a handful of federal appellate decisions since the New Deal to protect economic liberty—will benefit millions of Americans across the country struggling to earn an honest living under the weight of government licensing rules that create barriers to entry and suppress competition. In a nutshell, the 5th Circuit—which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—held that laws amounting to “naked transfers of wealth” to politically favored insiders are unconstitutional. By contrast, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar law in Oklahoma in 2004, finding no constitutional problem with its conclusion that “dishing out special economic benefits” to industry insiders was the “national pastime” of state and local governments.
Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which represents the monks, said, “This opinion is a total vindication for the monks and a complete repudiation of the State Board’s five-year campaign to deny the monks their constitutional right to sell their handmade caskets.”
Jeff Rowes, also a senior attorney with the Institute, added, “This important precedent is a message to lawmakers and lobbyists that the courts are watching their often unholy unions. This decision will also allow others across the country to defend their economic liberty by bringing constitutional cases to the countless laws and regulations that irrationally harm entrepreneurs.”
Abbot Justin Brown, who heads the monastic community, said, “Since Saint Benedict commanded monks to support themselves with the labor of their own hands 1600 years ago, monks have always been entrepreneurs, and now the brothers of Saint Joseph Abbey have the economic liberty to sell our handmade caskets without being branded criminals.” He added, “We welcome the prospect of going to the Supreme Court because we have always believed that this case is about more than just us monks. It’s about economic liberty for all Americans and we are prepared to defend that in the highest court in the land.”
Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Institute, added, “The Fifth Circuit correctly rejected economic protectionism as a legitimate state interest, characterizing Louisiana’s law as ‘economic protection of the rulemakers’ pockets.’ Occupational licensing laws are often terrible precisely because established businesses work with regulators to completely restrict competition and shut out new entrants to the market.”
The 5th Circuit also rejected Louisiana’s argument that virtually any justification, no matter how imaginary and fantastical, was sufficient to uphold a law from constitutional attack: “The great deference due state economic regulation does not demand judicial blindness to the history of a challenged rule or the context of its adoption nor does it require courts to accept nonsensical explanations for regulation.”
Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute, said, “The opinion is a model of judicial engagement, correctly recognizing both the vital interest in protecting individual liberty and the limits to the judicial deference owed to legislatures.”
This is a good day. Hopefully IJ will stick around and take some more shots at more of Louisiana’s useless and run-amok state licensing boards.