An order of monks _ and anyone else _ can sell caskets in Louisiana without having a state funeral home license, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
Acting on a suit filed by the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Tammany Parish in August, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said "there is no rational basis" for the licensing requirement to be applied to those only wanting to sell caskets, such as the 38 monks.
The Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors had blocked the monks from selling caskets with simple white cloth interiors for $1,500 to $2,000, saying the abbey had neither a funeral director's license nor a funeral home license as required by state law.
But the judge said "the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry" and that the monks' constitutional rights were being violated by the ban.
"We are just thrilled for the abbey and for Louisiana consumers and the constitutional rights of all entrepreneurs," said Scott Bullock, an attorney for the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Economic Justice, which represents the monks. "This is really a slam-dunk victory for the constitutional right to economic liberty."
Abbott Justin Brown, who heads the abbey, said the monks had about a dozen caskets ready and planned to resume selling them as soon as possible. The monks want to sell caskets to replace their previous lumber production business, which was largely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The abbey gets no financial support from the Catholic church.
"This is an answer to about two years of prayers," Brown said.
The monks said they built and sold about 50 to 60 coffins before regulators told them they were violating the law. The suit was filed after the Legislature refused to give the abbey exemptions in 2008 and 2010.
An attorney for the funeral board, Michael Rasch, said the decision likely would be appealed.
Bullock conceded the legal fight likely isn't over. One federal circuit court struck down similar restrictions in Tennessee, while Oklahoma funeral regulations were upheld in another.
Bullock predicted the disputes eventually would land before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This is a very important constitutional question, whether economic protectionism is a legitimate governmental interest," he said. "It's a divided question in law constitutional law today. The Supreme Court has never ruled on this issue."
Louisiana law applies only to caskets sold by retailers physically located in the state. Caskets are readily available for sale at internet sites.