Business: Federal court to try monks' casket case

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A federal court will decide whether an order of Benedictine monks can make and sell caskets without a state license.

The monks of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Tammany Parish sued in August, saying the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is attempting to maintain a "casket cartel" through regulation dominated by the funeral industry.

The regulators told the monks not to sell the caskets because they are not licensed funeral directors. The 36 monks of the 121-year-old abbey decided in 2007 to sell coffins with simple white cloth interiors for $1,500 to $2,000 to support the abbey, which does not receive funding from the Roman Catholic Church.

About 50 to 60 of the caskets were sold before the board, acting on a complaint filed by a funeral home, subpoenaed the order and threatened fines, lawyer Jeff Rowes of the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice has said. The monks tried to get an exemption from the regulations in 2008 and 2010, but legislators rejected the requests.

New Orleans CityBusiness reports the case will head to trial June 6 after U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval on Monday denied the board's motion to dismiss the case.

"This ruling is a vindication of what we have been saying all along. Economic liberty is for everyone, including the monks of the abbey," Abbot Justin Brown said in a statement.

The monks and the Institute for Justice assert that the state licensing requirement is solely to keep competition down in the lucrative casket sales business. Members of the board have countered that they are merely trying to uphold the law and ensure the quality of their industry.

Getting a funeral director's license is no small task. State law requires at least 30 semester hours of college and a one-year apprenticeship during which the candidate must preside over at least 25 funerals. A funeral home license requires embalming by a licensed embalmer. Rowes has said the abbey does not intend to offer that service.

In Louisiana, the application fee to open a funeral business is $1,500. The cost is $250 for an embalmer's or funeral director permit and $100 for funeral director apprentices.

Published: Wed, Apr 13, 2011