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Louisiana’s casket-making monks declare victory with appeals court ruling

A federal appeals court in New Orleans sided with a Louisiana monastery in the monks’ legal battle with the state to sell their handcrafted cypress caskets.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said this week that it was skeptical of the motivation behind efforts by the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors to shut down sales of the caskets.

“The great deference due state economic regulation does not demand judicial blindness to the history of a challenged rule . . . nor does it require courts to accept nonsensical explanations for naked transfers of wealth,” Circuit Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham wrote.

“Our prayers have been answered,” said Abbot Justin Brown, leader of the 37 monks of St. Joseph Abbey near Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

The court did not declare unconstitutional a state law that says only funeral directors may sell caskets, as the monks and their libertarian lawyers at the Arlington County-based Institute for Justice had requested. Instead, the circuit judges asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to determine whether state law gives the funeral board the power to regulate casket sales by those not in the funeral industry.

But the decision seemed to leave little suspense about how the appeals court would rule if the case came back to it.

Lawyers for the monks declared victory.

“This decision is a total vindication for the monks and a complete repudiation of the state board,” said Scott Bullock, an Institute for Justice senior attorney who argued the case before the 5th Circuit.

A lawyer for the funeral directors said the board would not comment.

St. Joseph Abbey, which dates to 1889, has for years supplied caskets for its members and other religious leaders in southern Louisiana. In 2007, it invested $200,000 in a woodworking shop and decided to go commercial in an attempt to be self-supporting. It produces two models of honey-colored caskets, which sell for $1,500 and $2,000.

The funeral board immediately presented the abbey with a cease-and-desist order, citing the state law restricting sales of caskets. Louisiana is the only state with such a requirement, courts have found.

After unsuccessful attempts to get the law changed, the monks sued. A federal judge agreed with them that the only purpose of the law was economic protection of the state’s funeral services industry and ruled the statute unconstitutional. The abbey has sold caskets throughout the litigation and now produces about 20 a month.

The Institute for Justice’s interest is in challenging court decisions since the New Deal that have given the government great leeway in enacting economic regulations. Courts must find only that there is a “rational basis” for an act, the most accommodating standard for government action.

The court’s decision does not help the institute in its goal of getting the Supreme Court to revisit the “rational basis” standard. But the group’s executive director, William H. Mellor, said the panel did provide a model of a court addressing issues “concerning economic liberty by looking at the evidence, looking at the law and not paying excessive deference to the government.”

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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