A Federal judge today overturned a Louisiana state law that required a funeral parlor license to sell “funeral merchandise”.
.. on the bayou, the St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, La., ran up against the state’s funeral industry.
After Hurricane Katrina felled much of the pine forest they once harvested for timber and revenue, they built a woodshop and began hand-crafting and selling simple caskets to the public. The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, a state regulatory board dominated by funeral-industry members, began enforcing a Louisiana law that forbids anyone but a licensed parlor to sell “funeral merchandise.” They threatened the monks with thousands in fines and even jail time.
The board argued that the regulation of casket sales protects consumers and guarantees certain standards.
In a ruling Thursday, a federal judge disagreed. The “only people being protected are the funeral directors of Louisiana and their coffers,” wrote Judge Stanwood R. Duval, of the U.S. District Court in New Orleans. The monks had filed the federal lawsuit last August, arguing that the state was violating their gainful right to earn a living. They cited Louisiana’s “casket cartel” and said they had only sold 60 caskets, hardly making them a threat.
Judge Duval wrote that Louisiana’s requirement that anyone who wants to sell caskets secure certain training and licenses is irrational given that the state’s residents are free to order caskets over the Internet. “Any Louisianan can purchase a casket on-line without the ‘aid’ of a funeral director,” the judge wrote.
The CEO of now-bankrupt Borders Books could not be reached for comment.
Addendum. The Atlantic has an excellent article on the case. An excerpt:
A start-up was encroaching on the local monopoly funeral homes had on burial boxes, which were sometimes being sold at four times the wholesale price! The monks threatened those margins. And soon, they received a warning letter from the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, informing them that they were in violation a regulation they’d never before encountered. It stated that only state-licensed funeral directors may engage in the retail sale of caskets.
Getting licensed as a funeral director is neither easy nor compatible with monastic life, as the monks would soon discover. Applicants must have a high school diploma, earn 30 hours of college credit, and apprentice full time in the industry for one year, learning how to handle and embalm dead bodies. As a requirement for building a rectangular box with a lid, affixing handles, and selling it without even seeing a dead body, that struck the monks as excessive. And even if they met those burdens, they’d have to convert their monastery into a “funeral establishment,” a designation that would require a layout parlor for 30 people, a display room for six caskets, and body embalming equipment, among other things.
Had building and selling wooden boxes ever been so onerous?
Challenging the law would be tough too.
In order to prevail, the monks would have to prove Louisiana’s regulation failed to meet a level of scrutiny that is most favorable to the government. In other words, if the state had any “rational basis” for requiring casket entrepreneurs to meet the standards of funeral home directors — if doing so might even plausibly benefit consumers or safeguard public health — the law would be upheld.