Economic Liberty Matters, Even to Monks

Benedictines Launch Lawsuit Over Casket Regulations

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By Abbot Justin Brown

COVINGTON, Louisiana, AUG. 19, 2010 ( The state of Louisiana thinks the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey may be breaking the law.

Our supposed crime? Selling handmade wooden caskets. So we have taken the state of Louisiana to federal court because the Constitution does not allow the state to make honest work a crime.

The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Covington have been making simple caskets for our own use for more than a century. People began asking us to make our simple wooden coffins after attending funerals of monks and especially following the funerals of Bishop Stanley Ott, of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, and Bishop Warren Boudreaux of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux.

Our caskets provide comfort to the faithful because they embody our belief in the simplicity and unity of life and death. On Nov. 1, 2007, we officially unveiled Saint Joseph Woodworks, our modest casket-making business.

We are not a wealthy monastery and selling our handmade caskets will help us provide education and health care for our monks and enable us to continue to operate Saint Joseph Seminary College and the Christian Life Center. Monasteries in other states have gone into the casket business and we believe that we can offer well-crafted caskets at a fair price.

Shortly after we unveiled Saint Joseph Woodworks, the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors informed the Abbey that selling caskets would violate the law because we are not licensed funeral directors. The penalties for selling caskets include steep fines and even 180 days in jail.

Becoming a licensed funeral director is not possible. In addition to requiring us to spend time and money on educational requirements that having nothing to do with selling caskets, Louisiana would require us to abandon our calling as monks for a full year to serve as apprentice funeral directors. That, of course, we cannot do.

But the difficulty of becoming a licensed funeral director is beside the point. The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey feel very strongly we have a right to an honest living and the law should not be able to deny us our ability to support ourselves without a proper reason.

Here, there is no good reason. A casket may have great symbolic value, but it is essentially just a box for the dignified disposition of earthly remains. A casket does not serve any public health purpose. In fact, you do not need a casket to be buried in Louisiana.

Being people of conciliation, we monks tried for two years to change the law to allow us to sell our caskets, but there was steadfast opposition from licensed funeral directors.

Is it the job of government to restrict our right to earn an honest living just to protect the interests of a private group? The purpose of the law is to protect the public, not influential business interests.

That is why on Aug. 11, 2010, the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey joined the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm that protects the rights of entrepreneurs, in filing a federal constitutional lawsuit to protect our right to earn an honest living. This is not an attack on funeral directors, but rather on a law that is trying to shut out competition.

We have not taken this step lightly, but it is one of our Constitution’s many great virtues that it protects economic liberty so that everyone — even monks — can earn an honest living through the labor of their own hands.

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Justin Brown is the abbot of the Saint Joseph Abbey, located in Covington, La.

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