The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey put the final nail in the coffin of Louisiana’s law that allows only licensed funeral directors to sell caskets. The monks have been building simple wooden caskets to pay for basic necessities and to help others share their noble and simplistic life. A federal judge struck down the law in 2011and the 5th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case this past summer.
Last week, the 5th Circuit ruled the five-year campaign by the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors to prevent the monks from selling their caskets was either unconstitutional or an unauthorized abuse of power by the state board.
The three-judge panel then took the unusual step of asking the Louisiana Supreme Court a very narrow question: Does the state board have power granted by the legislature to restrict the monks from selling caskets? If the answer is yes, then the law is unconstitutional. If the answer is no, then the state board has been acting lawlessly against the monks and other entrepreneurs for years. After a two-year battle in federal court, this case is no longer about if the monks win, but how the monks win.
The answer to the 5th Circuit’s question is a simple yes. Louisiana’s law clearly states that only licensed funeral directors may sell caskets and the state board may go after anyone who violates the law. Also, the monks went to the Legislature twice to get the law changed and twice they were turned away, making it clear the Legislature has always understood the law to include the power to regulate the monks and other casket retailers. Thus, once the case returns to the 5th Circuit, that court is going to strike down Louisiana’s restrictions on who may sell caskets as unconstitutional.
This latest legal battle is about more than allowing a group of monks to sell what are just simple wooden boxes; this is about judges examining a law lobbied for by a group of industry insiders using their political connections for private gain and finding that law to be an illegitimate use of government power.
This victory for the monks may be about their freedom to sell caskets, but more importantly it is also about the courts starting to take the right to economic liberty seriously. For too long, courts have reflexively sided with the government when liberty-restricting laws are challenged in court instead of taking a hard look at the facts and evidence presented.
The 5th Circuit’s recognition that the state board violated the monks’ economic liberty under the U.S. Constitution is just one example of where judges are starting to be engaged, rather than rubber-stamp whatever the government does. Utah hairbraiders are now free to braid hair without having to spend thousands of dollars on hundreds of hours of cosmetology classes that teach nothing about hairbraiding after a federal judge held there were no legitimate reasons for upholding the law.
The right to earn an honest living free from government interference is a fundamental right protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And the final showdown between the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors and the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey might very well be settled by a higher power – the U.S. Supreme
Shira Rawlinson is the communications coordinator for the Institute for Justice, which represents the monks. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.