Tim Drake is an award-winning writer and former journalist and radio host with the National Catholic Register/EWTN. He currently serves as New Evangelization Coordinator for the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. He resides with his wife and five children in St. Joseph, Minn.
Can the government restrict the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Saint Benedict, La., from building boxes?
Yes, says the state, if those boxes are for the deceased.
In 2007, the monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey started St. Joseph Woodworks for the purpose of building simple wooden caskets as a means of supporting themselves. Monks in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota have been in the casket-making business for years.
Before they were able to sell even a single casket, the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors told them that their sale of caskets violated state law, which says that you cannot sell “funeral merchandise” unless you’re a licensed funeral director. Were the monks to sell their caskets, they would risk both fines and imprisonment.
In order to sell caskets legally, the monks would have to apprentice at a licensed funeral home for a year, take a funeral industry test, and convert their monastery into a “funeral establishment,” installing equipment for embalming.
“We are not a wealthy monastery, and we want to sell our plain wooden caskets to pay for food, health care, and the education of our monks, said Abbot Justin Brown.
This morning, the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice is holding a press conference on the front steps of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on behalf of the monks. They are announcing a federal lawsuit to fight against the state funeral board’s attempt to shut down their casket-making business.
“A casket is just a box and you do not even need one for burial,” said Institute for Justice senior attorney Scott Bullock. “There is no legitimate health or safety reason to license casket sellers.”
The Institute for Justice says that the only reason the state of Louisiana is preventing the Abbey from selling its caskets is to protect the profits of the state’s funeral directors.
“Economic liberty is a constitutional right that matters to everyone, even monks,” said Jeff Rowes, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice.
“The monks’ story is just one example of a national problem in which industry cartels use government power to protect themselves from competition,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “Protecting economic liberty and ending government-enforced cartels requires judicial engagement – a willingness by the courts to confront what is often really going on when the government enacts licensing laws supposedly to protect the public.”
There’s a great video overview of the case go here. To learn more, visit the Institute for Justice’s website.