After fighting a lawsuit for over five years, Benedictine monks in Louisiana finally won the right to sell their handmade wooden caskets when a federal appeals court ruled in their favor March 20.
“This is great news for us...we're first of all very grateful,” said Abbot Justin Brown of the Covington-based Saint Joseph Abbey.
“We noted that the news came to us the day after the feast of St. Joseph, so we felt that we certainly had a friend and an intercessor in St. Joseph throughout these years we've been involved in this case,” he told CNA March 21.
The Abbey was forced to file a suit against the members of the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, who claimed the sale of caskets within the state could only be done by a state-licensed funeral director at a funeral home.
Wednesday's ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms the decision of a lower court that the funeral directors' policy denied the monks' rights to equal protection and due process.
“We have felt very much vindicated...we felt from the very beginning that we were being denied our constitutional rights with this law, that said we could not sell our caskets in Louisiana.”
“We could sell them outside Louisiana, but we couldn't sell them inside Louisiana.”
The abbey started its casket program on All Saints Day, 2007. It had previously received income from its timberland, but it had been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and “the Abbey began looking for other revenue sources,” the appeal court's decision explained.
The month after their casket business began, the Louisiana embalmers board “ordered the Abbey not to sell caskets to the public.”
The court wrote that the State Board's rule granting funeral directors a monopoly on Louisiana casket sales “adds nothing to protect consumers and puts them at a greater risk of abuse including exploitative prices.”
The simple wooden caskets made by the monks are sold at prices “significantly lower than those offered by funeral homes.”
“The funeral directors have offered no rational basis for their challenged rule and, try as we are required to do, we can suppose none,” the court concluded.
The case may go to the Supreme Court, as the Fifth Circuit's decision is at odds with the Tenth Circuit's 2004 decision upholding a similar law in Oklahoma.
Abbot Brown said the decision “is helping us certainly support our ministry and life here at St. Joseph Abbey, and it means a lot also to those who purchase our caskets for their loved ones.”
St. Joseph Abbey is nearly 125 years old, and operates a college seminary that serves dioceses in the South. It also has a retreat center, and a bakery that provides bread twice a week for New Orleans' poor, in addition to their casket business.
The caskets have “good craftmanship,” Abbot Brown noted. “They're very simple but very well done.”
“We feel that not only for us but for others, this is a victory for economic liberty. Especially for small businesses, that run against these kinds of regulations, and we hope this victory can help others.”