Louisiana monks' casket business headed for high court review

The Louisiana Supreme Court will soon hear a case involving the efforts of a Catholic monastery to maintain supporting revenue. The case raises questions of business law centering on state regulation of casket sales.

The monks of St. Joseph monastery in Covington turned to sales of traditionally manufactured caskets as a source of income in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Their caskets caught public attention in the 1990s when they were used for the burial of two bishops. The monks now offer two styles of simple caskets, priced substantially lower than the more elaborate models offered by funeral homes, as a source of income for the monastery.

The ongoing business litigation began when the State Board of Licensed Funeral Directors insisted that the monastery required licensing as a funeral director or funeral establishment in order to legally sell their caskets in the retail market. The federal district court concluded that there was no rational basis to require the monks to meet state training and licensing requirements when their only involvement in the conduct of funerals is to provide pastoral services.

The appellate court panel agreed with the district court and pointed out that Louisiana law allows individuals to construct their own caskets and does not even require that a person be buried in a casket. The panel of judges went on to note that the professional expertise of a funeral director does not directly relate to the sale of caskets because Louisiana residents are free to purchase caskets from out of state retailers.

The appellate court passed the case back to the state courts in order to determine the regulatory authority of the State Board. Given that an adverse decision would require the monks to invest in building funeral service facilities or quit making caskets, the monastery will need experienced legal counsel to convince the state court that its activities should not be subject to state regulation.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "Casket-Making Monks May Evade Licensing Yet," Sabrina Canfield, Oct. 29, 2012

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