Way to go, monks!
A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that Louisiana monks may keep selling plain, relatively low-cost coffins. Judge Patrick Higginbotham and his colleagues on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a state regulation allowing only licensed funeral directors to sell coffins has no reasonable grounds and is just a protection device for private interests.
Attorney Jeff Rowes of the Institute for Justice said the ruling was big: “This is one of only a handful of decisions since the New Deal in which a federal court of appeals has struck down economic regulations as unconstitutional.” The funeral directors will probably appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because circuit courts have now split on whether laws and regulations that only benefit private interests are constitutional.
The monks of St. Joseph Abbey sell a flat-topped “monastic” model for $1,500. A “traditional” model with raised top and hand-carved wooden handles goes for $2,000. (Online, pine box coffins can be had for $500; morticians sell some mahogany, bronze, or copper caskets for $10,000.)
The legal precedents cut both ways. In a 2002 Tennessee ruling, the 6th Circuit said state licensing requirements create an unnecessary barrier to other retailers. But the 10th Circuit in 2005 ruled in favor of Oklahoma funeral directors in 2005, noting that “dishing out special economic benefits to certain in-state industries remains the favored pastime of state and local governments.”
The 5th Circuit recently upheld Houston’s taxicab permit rules that “disfavored small cab companies” because “promoting full-service taxi operations is a legitimate governmental purpose.” But in this case, Higginbotham wrote, granting funeral homes the exclusive right to sell coffins “adds nothing to protect consumers and puts them at a greater risk of abuse, including exploitative prices.”
Higginbotham described the attempt of the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors to stifle the entrepreneurial monks as “economic protection of the rulemakers’ pockets.” He said the appeals court did not have to accept “nonsensical explanations for regulation.” He stopped short of saying that disallowing of nonsensical explanations would lead to massive unemployment among legislators and regulators.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.