Many of us like certainty. Death and taxes are two things we can be certain about. But should our choice of who we buy our casket from, if we buy one, when we die be dictated by the state? No, says the New Orleans based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in its March, 20, 2013 decision in St. Joseph Abbey v. Paul Wes Castille, et. al. This is a good thing. It means the state cannot protect an industry from competition without justification. What implications, if any, the decision on has on similar federal laws remains to be seen.
A group of Louisiana priests brought suit against members of the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors because of a law that prohibited the priests from making, and selling, caskets. According to the law, the priests needed to be funeral directors to do that. But becoming a licensed funeral director in Louisiana is expensive and time consuming. The priests claimed that the law violated the equal protection clause because it had no rational basis to a legitimate government interest, and that it was an unconstitutional taking of property without due process.
The Fifth Circuit agreed. Louisiana, after all, allows anyone to build their own casket for personal use, and doesn’t even require a citizen to be buried in a casket at all. The state also allows its citizens to buy caskets out of state. In any event, the Court reasoned, the requirements to become a funeral director have nothing to do with casket making. Thus, there was no rational relationship between the law and a legitimate government interest.
The most important part of the Court’s ruling is its rejection of naked economic protectionism. Under this view, the state has a legitimate government interest in the protection of a particular industry from competition even when there is no corresponding benefit to the public interest or general welfare. The Court said Louisiana could not protect funeral directors from competition by the priests merely because, say, they have a stronger lobby in Baton Rouge.
It remains to be seen whether the case goes to the Supreme Court. If it does and is affirmed, some federal laws and regulations may be in greater danger of being invalidated as naked wealth transfers to a special interest with strong ties in Washington D.C.