Acadiana Business

Monks trump morticians at SCOTUS

by Walter Pierce

Benedictine monks have won the final round in their lawsuit to keep selling plain caskets from their monastery outside New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Benedictine monks have won the final round in their lawsuit to keep selling plain caskets from their monastery outside New Orleans.

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors' appeal, Darpana M. Sheth, attorney for St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, said Tuesday.

She called it a great victory for the abbey and for entrepreneurs nationwide because it signals that protecting special interests is not a legitimate government function. "There has to be some public benefit - some legitimate health or safety or some other reason beyond just trying to protect industry insiders," she said.

About to celebrate Mass at the abbey, Abbot Justin Brown said the service would not celebrate victory. "But certainly in our hearts we will say a thanksgiving prayer for this," he said.

"I think this vindicates what we've been saying from the beginning - that we and others like us have a right to build and sell caskets without any unnecessary restrictions from the government," Brown said.

The funeral board referred a request for comment to its attorney, who did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press.

A district judge and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had found no reasonable grounds for a regulation that only state-licensed funeral directors may sell coffins in Louisiana.

The 5th Circuit was the third federal appeals court to rule against similar laws or regulations. The 10th Circuit, which covers Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, ruled in favor of them.

"Economic protectionism" is not only legitimate but so pervasive "that it may be practically impossible to avoid it," attorneys for the Louisiana board wrote in their request for a Supreme Court hearing.

"The idea that courts - federal or state - could change this perhaps regrettable truth is just unworkable," they wrote.

The 5th Circuit ruling, covering Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, followed similar rulings in the 6th Circuit, covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, and the 9th Circuit, with jurisdiction over Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

"We have the weight of authority ... all agreeing" that the government cannot act only to protect private parties' pocketbooks, Sheth said.

The justices refused in 2005 to consider a similar lawsuit won by Oklahoma's funeral directors.

Sheth said she believes that the high court's refusal to hear the Louisiana case indicates that the 10th Circuit ruling "is a sole outlier. It stands on its own; it's never been followed. The split hasn't widened."

"This really makes the ruling on the 5th Circuit final and applying across the country," she said.