Monks, caskets, and more client politics
June 2, 2012 1 Comment
A group of monks in Louisiana decided to build caskets (apparently God willed it) and then ran into a Louisiana law that said only licensed funeral directors could sell caskets in the state. Absolutely absurd, of course. What legitimate state interest is served by this? That’s right– none. What illegitimate state interest is served? Making happy the funeral directors who care a lot about making profits as a cartel and direct some of those profits to LA legislators re-election campaigns. The Post tells the sad and sorry details of one more case study of why public policy is often just son wrong;
Not very long after God told some at St. Joseph Abbey that the way out of financial hardship might be selling the monks’ handcrafted caskets, the state of Louisiana arrived with a different message.
It was a cease-and-desist order and came with threats of thousands of dollars in fines and possible criminal prosecution…
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.
As you might expect, the funeral directors are full of all sorts of implausible explanations for why the current law is a good thing;
Representatives of the funeral directors board, the association that lobbies the legislature and several funeral directors who serve on both did not return phone calls or e-mails asking for comment on the case.
But in court pleadings, the board said the legislature had good reason for limiting in-state sales of caskets. The act protects Louisianans from “improper and overreaching sales tactics in the area of ‘at need’ casket sales,” the brief says. In some parts of the state, many burials are aboveground, and that requires “knowledgable decisions” in casket sales “mindful of Louisiana’s unique situation.”
And, as you might expect, they are full of it:
The institute’s attorneys say that makes no sense. The state has no legal requirement that anyone be buried in a casket, and, under federal rules, funeral directors must accept a casket that a family has purchased elsewhere.
Still, the Louisiana board argues, courts are simply not free to overturn economic regulation laws that have some rational basis.
I suppose that if ‘some particular industry contributed a lot to our legislators’ re-election campaigns and they’ll get richer from the law we pass’ is a rational basis for government action, government really can do anything. This law needs to go. Of course, there’s all sorts of laws around the country that essentially use the above reasoning for their rational basis and that’s just a sad fact of political life.