NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Benedictine monks may keep selling plain, low-cost caskets from their monastery outside New Orleans, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, finding that a regulation that only state-licensed funeral directors may sell coffins in Louisiana had no reasonable grounds.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling in favor of St. Joseph Abbey and against the state board of funeral directors.
"The funeral directors have offered no rational basis for their challenged rule and, try as we are required to do, we can suppose none," Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
It's a landmark constitutional ruling, said attorney Jeff Rowes of the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which represented the monastery in Covington, about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans.
"This is one of only a handful of decisions since the New Deal in which a federal court of appeals has struck down economic regulations as unconstitutional," he said.
The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors referred a call for comment to its attorneys, who did not immediately respond.
The three dozen Catholic monks had long made plain wood caskets for themselves, and set up St. Joseph Woodworks to sell coffins to outsiders in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina flattened 60 percent of the forests they had been leasing to timber companies, Abbot Justin Brown said Wednesday.
Their flat-topped "monastic" model sells for $1,500, their "traditional" model, with a raised top and hand-carved wooden handles, for $2,000.
The monks sold 50 to 60 caskets in 2007 before the funeral board ordered them to stop that December. They went to court in 2010 after trying unsuccessfully to get an exemption for coffins made by nonprofit charitable groups.
"Louisiana does not even require a casket for burial, does not impose requirements for their construction or design, does not require a casket to be sealed before burial, and does not require funeral directors to have any special expertise in caskets," Higginbotham wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Catharina Haynes and Stephen Higginson.
"That ... leads us to conclude that no rational relationship exists between public health and safety and limiting intrastate sales of caskets to funeral establishments," he wrote.
Rowes said he thinks the funeral directors will likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because there is now a strong split among appeals courts about whether laws or regulations that only protect specific private interests are constitutional.
"The Supreme Court exists to resolve exactly those types of disagreement," he said.
The 5th Circuit had asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to decide whether the board's regulatory power extends beyond funeral homes. It said Louisiana's highest court declined to hear the case and did not say why.
The nation's highest court declined to consider a similar lawsuit won by Oklahoma's funeral directors in 2005. That decision conflicted with another appeals court's ruling three years earlier that struck down a Tennessee law as unconstitutional.
Judges cannot second-guess economic restrictions passed by state legislatures because those laws have a stated purpose of protecting consumers, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the Oklahoma case.
"While baseball may be the national pastime of the citizenry, dishing out special economic benefits to certain in-state industries remains the favored pastime of state and local governments," Chief Judge Deanell Reece Tacha wrote in a unanimous decision.
In the Tennessee ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in 2002 that the state licensing requirements created an unnecessary barrier to other retailers.
The 5th Circuit noted that it recently upheld Houston's taxi cab permit rules that "disfavored small cab companies" because "promoting full-service taxi operations is a legitimate governmental purpose."
Giving funeral homes the exclusive right to sell caskets "adds nothing to protect consumers and puts them at a greater risk of abuse including exploitative prices," Higginbotham wrote.
"The great deference due state economic regulation does not demand judicial blindness to the history of a challenged rule or the context of its adoption nor does it require courts to accept nonsensical explanations for regulation," the opinion said.
It described Louisiana's rule as "economic' protection of the rulemakers' pockets."
Before 2007, St. Joseph got occasional requests for caskets from people who had come to the abbey for a monk's funeral. More requests came after the funerals of two bishops in the 1990s buried in caskets made at St. Joseph.
The abbot said casket sales resumed after a district judge's ruling for the monks in 2011.
"We're averaging about 20 a month. For now it's about what we can handle," he said.
He was struck that the 5th Circuit's ruling was made the day after the feast of St. Joseph the Carpenter. "We'd certainly been asking St. Joseph to pray for us in this case," he said.
They won't be breaking out the Benedictine brandy, though.
"We had that yesterday for St. Joseph's Day. We're back in Lent. We'll celebrate on Easter Sunday," he said.