A federal judge has rejected a bid to scrap a New Jersey law that would bar private religious cemeteries from selling headstones.
U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp said Friday that the suit by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark and two parishioners had failed to show a constitutional violation, NorthJersey.com reports.
The dispute goes back to 2013, when the archdiocese expanded its inscription rights program, the proceeds from which it used to care for cemeteries. Under the program, the church offered the option for a headstone but retained ownership of it in perpetuity. The idea was that a bereaved family could write an inscription on a headstone but the church would care for the headstone going forward.
The Monument Builders Association of New Jersey, an advocacy group for people who make headstones and other funerary monuments, soon sued, arguing the church’s tax-exempt status and relationship with parishioners gave it an unfair advantage. The group lost in court, but the state’s Democrat-led legislature then enacted legislation, signed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2015, that effectively outlawed the practice.
Shipp wrote that the archdiocese hadn’t demonstrated a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, part of the 14th Amendment, and the state had a legitimate interest in protecting consumers “who must venture into the potentially exploitative market for funeral services.”
Archdiocese spokesman Jim Goodness called the decision disappointing but said further comment would be premature “until we’ve reviewed it fully and evaluated our options.”
The Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which represented the archdiocese, said Friday that headstone sales don’t raise “valid consumer protection concerns” and the law is really intended to protect “the private financial interests of the headstone and funeral director industries.”
The archdiocese serves approximately 1.3 million Roman Catholics in Essex, Hudson, Union and Bergen counties. Goodness said earlier that it operates 10 cemeteries.