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.”
Yesterday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous final decision in favor of the casket-making monk, setting up what could become a historic clash at the U.S. Supreme Court. 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.
Unfortunately, this latest ruling doesn’t solve the issue. As the Institute for Justice explains,
With today’s decision, there is now a decisive disagreement among the federal courts of appeal on one of the most important unresolved questions in constitutional law: Does the U.S. Constitution allow the government to pass economic regulations with no public benefit solely to enrich special interests at the expense of would-be competitors and consumers?
They also note that while the 5th Circuit held that laws amounting to “naked transfers of wealth” to politically favored insiders are unconstitutional, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar law in 2004, finding no constitutional problem with its conclusion that “dishing out special economic benefits” to industry insiders was the “national pastime” of state and local governments.
The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors have 90 days to petition the U.S. Supreme Court. With the lower courts split over the constitutionality of crony capitalism, it’s difficult to know how the Supreme Court would rule. But in the meantime we can celebrate the win for entrepreneurs and economic freedom. This victory for the monks proves that free enterprise still has a prayer of being free from cronyism.
See also: Monks, Florists, and the Poor