Louisiana Monks' Caskets Suit Heads Back To Court

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) A group of Catholic monks who sued for the right to sell handmade caskets will head back to court this week, fending off an appeal from the state funeral industry after a federal judge last year struck down a state law that permitted only licensed funeral directors to sell coffins.

Three members of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on Thursday (June 7) in the case of the monks of St. Joseph Abbey versus Louisiana funeral homes.

The monks wanted to sell handmade cypress caskets that are made at their wood shop without paying the expensive fees and meeting the stringent requirements to obtain certification from the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. The abbey has said it counts on the casket sales to help finance medical and educational needs for more than 30 monks.

Last July, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval ruled that the state statute unfairly shielded a funeral industry monopoly to the detriment of consumers.

Scott Bullock, an attorney with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that is representing the monks, said he and his colleagues "were really looking forward to the argument."

"We think that Judge Duval's decision was very well reasoned and followed precisely the correct legal standard," Bullock said. "We are very hopeful the court frees -- once and for all -- the monks to sell these simple wooden boxes to parishioners and other Louisiana consumers who want them."

A message for Michael H. Rasch, the Louisiana funeral board's lead lawyer in the case, was unreturned.

Court filings suggest the funeral board's argument this time around is that the law that the lower court struck down last year was in fact constitutional because it ensured Louisiana consumers dealt with expert industry professionals at a time of grief, "a legitimate public concern."

The state licensing requirement protected customers from mishaps such as purchasing a funeral box that wouldn't fit in Louisiana's above-ground family tombs or other unique burial spaces.

The monks' lawyers, however, have filed papers that argue Louisiana law does not require a coffin for burial. It also does not mandate casket-specific training or grief training for funeral directors.

Additionally, Louisiana residents can buy a casket from out-of-state discount retail stores or even online. But, if they wished to purchase one in Louisiana, they were forced to turn to licensed funeral establishments, which is illogical and violates basic consumer rights, the monks' attorneys argue.

The Louisiana Funeral Directors Association has filed an amicus brief in support of the funeral board. Amicus briefs in support of the monks were filed by George Mason University Law School professor Todd Zywicki, an expert in consumer protection law; and the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association as well as the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

The Federal Trade Commission, supporting neither the monks nor the funeral board, filed an amicus brief stating it "consistently has opposed laws that prohibit persons other than licensed funeral directors from selling caskets or urns."

(Ramon Antonio Vargas writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)