Free the Monks and Free Enterprise
“We are not a wealthy monastery,” said IJ client Abbot Justin Brown, who is fighting for the monks’ right to earn an honest living. “We want to sell our plain wooden caskets to pay for food, health care and the education of our monks.”
By Jeff Rowes
You know that no one is safe from bureaucrats and industry cartels when the government starts going after monks. But that’s what is happening in Louisiana, and so IJ has come to the rescue of Saint Joseph Abbey in our latest economic liberty case.
Following an ancient tradition of self-reliance, Abbot Justin Brown and his 35 fellow monks in Covington, La., want to help put food on their table by making and selling simple wooden caskets to the public. The monks have made caskets for themselves for more than 100 years and decided to launch Saint Joseph Woodworks in late 2007. They hope to make 15 to 20 caskets each month.
But the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors—which is dominated by members of the funeral industry—sent the monks a cease and desist letter before they sold even one casket. In Louisiana, one must be a government-licensed funeral director to sell caskets and the funeral directors do not want competition from anyone—not even monks.
There is no legitimate reason to license casket sellers. A casket is just a box. It serves no health or safety purpose. In fact, a casket is not even necessary for burial in Louisiana or anywhere else in the country. You can be buried in a bed sheet, in a cardboard box or in nothing at all.
In March, the state board issued subpoenas for Abbot Justin and Deacon Mark Coudrain to appear at a formal hearing to determine if they are guilty of violating the casket sale law. The state board has threatened them with huge fines for the sin of selling caskets without a license. They even face criminal prosecution and could be sentenced to 180 days in jail.
But earning an honest living should not be a crime in Louisiana or anywhere else. That is why IJ filed suit on August 12, 2010, in federal court in New Orleans to vindicate the right of economic liberty for every American.
The plight of the monks triggered interest and outrage across Louisiana and the rest of the nation. In addition to wall-to-wall local TV and newspaper coverage USA Today ran an op-ed by IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock and me; The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story; John Stossel featured the case on Fox Business and our case-launch video was a hit with bloggers.
This case has resonated with so many people because it dramatically illustrates the David vs. Goliath fight that small-business entrepreneurs face nationwide. Unfair licensing laws and red tape stand in the way of the American Dream from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore.
IJ’s defense of Saint Joseph Abbey is a strategic part of our national campaign to restore economic liberty from coast to coast. One of the most important unsettled constitutional questions is whether the government can keep people from earning an honest living merely to protect the profits of industry insiders. Previous IJ casket cases in Tennessee and Oklahoma created disagreement on this question between two federal courts of appeal. Our new case representing the Abbey has the potential to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve this disagreement and make economic liberty the constitutional law of the land.
The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey have teamed up with IJ to secure the blessings of economic liberty for everyone. With that in mind, the Louisiana casket cartel doesn’t have a prayer!
Jeff Rowes is an IJ senior attorney.