“Before we even sold a casket,” St. Joseph Abbot Justin Brown said in a recent interview in the picturesque abbey, which is located about an hour’s drive from New Orleans, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. Now a band of libertarian lawyers is hoping that the honey-colored Louisiana cypress coffins provide the vehicle for a Supreme Court review of government economic regulations.
Brown, a soft-spoken man who is only the fifth leader of a monastery that dates to 1889, said he had not known that in Louisiana only licensed funeral directors are allowed to sell “funeral merchandise.”
That means that St. Joseph Abbey must either give up the casket-selling business or become a licensed funeral establishment, which would require a layout parlor for 30 people, a display area for the coffins, the employment of a licensed funeral director and an embalming room.
“Really,” Brown said. “It’s just a big box.”
And so, after much prayer and two failed attempts to get the Louisiana legislature to change the law, the monks went to federal court.
The monks won round one in July, when U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. ruled Louisiana’s restrictions unconstitutional, saying “the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry.”
The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which has argued that the law protects consumers, has appealed, and the circuit court in New Orleans will hear the case in early June.
The monks are represented by the Arlington County-based Institute for Justice, which has a knack for picking empathetic, working-class parties — hair braiders, flower arrangers, city tour guides — to personify what it says is its battle against government regulation that strangles free enterprise.
The group is on a constant watch to find the perfect case to challenge a series of economic regulation decisions nearly unbroken since the New Deal. Courts must find only that there is a “rational basis” for an act, the most accommodating standard for government action.
William H. “Chip” Mellor, president of the group, said there are three essential components to a successful suit: “outrageous facts,” “evil villains” and “sympathetic clients.”
By that measure, the institute might find it hard to top St. Joseph Abbey. Jeff Rowes, one of the lawyers in the case, said he recently gave this advice to a seminar of law students:
“The number one thing you should do as a public interest litigator is to get monks as your clients in every single case.”
‘It’s God’s idea’
Brown, 54, never really thought of going into the casket-building business, although the abbey has built caskets for years for the monks and others in southeast Louisiana.
But the monks of St. Joseph, part of the Order of Saint Benedict, must support themselves. “Ora et labora” — “prayer and work” — is the order’s motto. Money comes from contributions, the seminary that trains priests, a retreat center and small enterprises such as a gift shop that features abbey-made Monk Soap in fragrances such as Mayan Gold.