Burying Bad Regulation: St. Joseph’s Abbey Strikes Blow for Economic Freedom

The monks of St. Joseph Abbey are celebrating. Thanks to a ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the brothers can keep selling caskets in Louisiana.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Abbey’s valuable timberland, the monks needed a new source of income. That’s when they started St. Joseph Woodworks, a casket company. For generations, the monks had buried their dead brothers in hand-made wooden caskets. Now, they would produce those same finely crafted caskets for the general public.

There was only one problem: a licensing requirement made it a crime for St. Joseph Woodworks to sell its caskets to Louisiana residents.

No one claimed the caskets were poorly built. They posed no health risks. And certainly the monks weren’t exploiting grieving families; their caskets were in fact less expensive than those carried by local funeral parlors.

Of course, that was the problem.

A state licensing law designed to protect funeral directors from competitive forces barred the monks from selling their caskets. The law required that the intrastate purchase of caskets be made only through state-licensed funeral directors at state-licensed funeral homes. This meant: unless the Abbey built or bought a funeral establishment with a layout parlor, a six-casket display room, an arrangement room, embalming facilities, and hired a full-time funeral director who had completed high school, 30 college credit hours, a one-year apprenticeship, and passed a test … the Abbey could not sell its caskets to customers in Louisiana.

The Fifth Circuit has now declared that law to be unconstitutional.

In St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, the court ruled that the regulations violated both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.

The court found no rational relationship between the regulation and the state’s interest in consumer protection, health, or safety. Louisiana’s licensing scheme doesn’t require funeral directors to be trained or tested in casket selection. It doesn’t require that all caskets be purchased through licensed funeral directors.

Louisiana permits its residents to build their own caskets or to buy them from out-of-state vendors. It doesn’t regulate the design, construction, or sealing of a casket. The state doesn’t even require that the dead be buried in a casket at all.

The Fifth Circuit therefore determined that the law constituted pure economic favoritism. It affirmed the district court decision that “this brand of economic protectionism is not a legitimate state interest.”