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A grave injustice? New Jersey’s ban on headstone sales takes effect

By   /   March 25, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Religious institutions in New Jersey are no longer allowed to sell grave markers, thanks to a new state law that took effect this week.

Signed into law a year ago by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, the new regulations target the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, which in 2013 began selling grave markers for burial plots within the archdiocese’s cemeteries. The Monument Builders Association of New Jersey sued the archdiocese and then successfully lobbied for the passage of a law to protect their members from competition.

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GRAVE MATTERS: Religious institutions in New Jersey, like the Archdiocese of Newark, headquartered in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, shown here, are no longer allowed to sell grave markers, thanks to a new state law that took effect this week.

Christie signed the bill in March 2015 but delayed its implementation for one year.

“We have dreaded this day for a year,” said Andrew P. Schafer, executive director of the Newark Archdiocese Office of Catholic Cemeteries.

But the courts will likely get the final say in the matter.

The grave marker business is a lucrative one. The archdiocese made about $500,000 in the first year after it started marketing headstones directly to consumers, and the MBA argued that its members lost more than one-third of their business.

The archdiocese’s business model differed from that of the for-profit memorialists. While the businesses simply sell headstones to consumers, the archdiocese sells “inscription rights,” retaining ownership of the headstone while allowing the bereaved to engrave a message on it. This means maintenance of the headstones in the archdiocese’s 11 Catholic cemeteries will be at the Church’s expense in perpetuity.

With the threat of losing more business to the Catholics, the Monument Builders Association sued the archdiocese in 2013, but the lawsuit failed because it was not illegal for religious institutions to sell grave markers.

Stopped by the courts, the MBA turned to the state legislature. A bill banning religious institutions from selling grave markers sailed through the state legislature in December 2014 with bipartisan support.

Lawmakers who backed the bill said they were worried about the nonprofit archdiocese taking business away from monument dealers.

READ MORE: Christie caves to protectionism, signs New Jersey gravestone bill

“We’re not millionaires. We are small businesses trying to survive,” said John Burns Jr., president of the Monument Builders Association of New Jersey, told lawmakers.

Now the issue is back in court. The Archdiocese of Newark, along with two of its constituents and the Institute For Justice, a libertarian law firm, is challenging the ban on religious institutions selling grave markers.

The state of New Jersey has asked the U.S. District Court in New Jersey to dismiss the complaint, but the case is still pending.

The Institute For Justice says the case could be a model for attacking similar protectionist regulations in other areas of the economy, an issue on which federal courts have established no settled rules.

Until that gets resolved, consumers in New Jersey will have fewer options when it comes time to purchase a grave marker for a family member or loved one.  The state is one of just three in the country to ban religious institutions from selling gravestones.

“This new law protects only the interests of funeral directors and monument dealers while eliminating the rights of families we serve and our ministry,” Schafer said Wednesday.

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Eric Boehm is the national regulatory reporter for Watchdog.org. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and Fox News. He was once featured in a BuzzFeed listicle. Follow him on Twitter @EricBoehm87 and reach him at [email protected]