Undertakers' Undertaking Fails: Court Strikes La. Casket Rules

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 26, 2013 4:01 PM

It's official: Barring Supreme Court review, the St. Joseph Abbey monks can sell caskets in Louisiana.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that Louisiana morticians had failed to offer a rational basis for a state rule limiting casket sales to licensed funeral directors, The Associated Press reports.

Under Louisiana's Embalming and Funeral Directors Act, it is illegal for anyone to conduct the business of funeral directing or to engage in the business of funeral directing without first getting licensed as a licensed funeral establishment. The "business of funeral directing" includes casket sales.

That rule was rather ridiculous when you consider that Louisiana doesn't otherwise regulate caskets. The Fifth Circuit noted:

To be sure, Louisiana does not regulate the use of a casket, container, or other enclosure for the burial remains; has no requirements for the construction of design of caskets; and does not require that caskets be sealed. Individuals may construct their own caskets for funeral in Louisiana or purchase caskets from out-of-state supplied via the [I]nternet. Indeed, no Louisiana law even requires a person to be buried in a casket. Nonetheless, the Abbey's plan for casket sales faced significant regulatory burdens.

When the St. Joseph Abbey monks in Covington, Louisiana, started producing caskets commercially in 2007, the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors sent them a cease-and-desist letter, threatening them with prison and thousands of dollars in fines for making caskets to support themselves, reports KATC.

The monks sued the Board in federal court. District Judge Stanwood Duvall ruled that the license requirement violated the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Board appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit last year.

The appellate court was receptive to the monks' arguments, but the appellate panel still wanted a state court opinion in the matter. In October, the Fifth Circuit certified a question to the Louisiana Supreme Court, asking that court to decide if the Board can set the state rules of casket sales. The state supreme court denied the certified question in January.

After considering the funeral directors' arguments regarding consumer protection and public health and safety, the Fifth Circuit panel concluded, "The funeral directors have offered no rational basis for their challenged rule and, try as we are required to do, we can suppose none."

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