The morticians wanted the monks shut down—or even thrown in jail—for the crime the Benedictines were committing.
Until 2005, the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana had relied on harvesting timber for income. But when Hurricane Katrina destroyed their pine forest they had to find new sources of revenue to fund the 124-year-old abbey. For over 100 years, the monks had been making simple, handcrafted, monastic caskets so they decided to try to sell them to the public.
According to the Wall Street Journal, after a local Catholic newspaper publicized the effort in 2007, local funeral directors got the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors—of which eight of the nine members are funeral industry professionals—to serve the abbey with a cease-and-desist order. Louisiana law makes it a crime for anyone but a licensed parlor to sell “funeral merchandise.” Violating the statute could land the monks in jail for up to 180 days.
Since the sole purpose of the “casket cartel” law is to protect the economic interest of the funeral industry, the Institute for Justice filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the monastery claiming the legislation restricts “the right to earn an honest living just to enrich government-licensed funeral directors.”
Earlier this year the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous final decision in favor of the casket-making monks. The Court of Appeals rejected Louisiana’s argument that it was constitutional to enact a law forbidding anyone but a government-licensed funeral director from selling caskets, especially if the only purpose of the law is to make funeral directors wealthier by limiting competition. In other words, the Court didn’t buy the State’s argument that crony capitalism is constitutionally protected.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the appellate ruling.
Attorneys with the Institute of Justice, a libertarian legal firm that represented the abbey, called the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal a final victory for the monks, affirming their right to earn a living without interference from unreasonable government regulations.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of review puts the final nail in the coffin for the state board’s protectionist and outrageous campaign against the monks,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the group, in a statement.
“The abbey’s victory in this case will not only protect their right to sell caskets, but the rights of entrepreneurs throughout the country.”
The Institute of Justice said the monks’ victory is one of only a handful of cases since the 1930s where a federal court has enforced a constitutional right to economic liberty.
This is a significant victory for these monks — and an important blow to cronyism.
See also: Monks, Florists, and the Poor
In this timely and balanced book, Austin Hill and Scott Rae agree with capitalism's critics that the economy is essentially a moral issue, but they argue that free markets are by-and-large the solution to financial disasters rather than the cause.