Friday, March 2, 2012

Judge sides with monks in coffin-crafting case in Covington

They never stopped making caskets, but now the monks at St.Joseph Abbey in Covington may have to pursue their own marketingstrategy after a federal judge has ruled they don't need a licenseto sell their hand-crafted wares.

"The only thing that might change is we may be able to do someadvertising now," Abbot Justin Brown said, adding that if there'senough interest in their caskets they may also hire outside help.

The state Board of Embalmers or Funeral Directors had told theBenedictine monastery in Covington it was violating state lawbecause only licensed funeral directors are permitted sell caskets.Penalties for violating the law include fines and jail time.

The abbey, backed by the Institute for Justice, disagreed andtook the board to court, seeking permanent injunction againstenforcing the law.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. said in his decision,"Simply put, there is nothing in the licensing procedures thatbestows any benefit to the public in the context of the retail saleof caskets."

The ruling also notes that Louisianans can order caskets from non-licensed, out-of-state retailers over the Internet.

It also means that the law stating only a licensed funeraldirector can sell caskets cannot be enforced, barring an appeal.

"We were pleased (Duval) agreed with all our arguments, includingthat the licensing law has no rational relationship at all to publicsafety," said Darpana Sheth, an attorney from the Institute ofJustice who represented the monks.

According to the law, to become a licensed funeral director inLouisiana, one must have a GED or high school diploma, pass 30college credit hours (which need not be related to the trade) andcomplete a one-year apprenticeship. The penalty for selling casketswithout being a licensed funeral director is up to a $2,500 fine and180 days in jail.

The Institute for Justice has maintained that the state's "casketcartel" has the law in place for the sole purpose of squelchingcompetition. The industry is said to get up to 400 percent markupsabove wholesale prices on the caskets it sells at retail.

The state has 30 days to appeal the ruling. Mike Rasch, theattorney for the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, said heplanned to do so.

Saying he was "disappointed" with the judge's decision, Raschsaid he believes the plaintiffs were not able to prove that there isno rational basis for the law.

"Certainly we believe that the plaintiffs did not meet theirburden of proof at trial," Rasch said.

The abbey launched St. Joseph Woodworks in 2007 with aninvestment of about $200,000 in response to demand from the publicfor its simplistic coffins. The monks started the enterprise as away to make up for income lost to timber destruction duringHurricane Katrina. Before the storm, the abbey harvested trees onits property as a way of supporting itself.

"We won't be able to sell timber for another 20 years," Brownsaid. "We lost a good 60 percent of our adult trees."

The abbey never stopped making caskets while the lawsuit waspending, Brown added, furnishing about 10 per month with a pricerange between $1,500 and $2,000.

And now, assuming the continued press coverage dwindles, "We'llhave to pay for our own advertising," Brown joked.

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