As of last week, it is illegal in New Jersey for churches to sell headstones for use in their own graveyards. Yes, really:
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. …
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.
The good news is the Institute for Justice (IJ)—a libertarian law nonprofit with a great record striking down dumb regulations like onerous hair-braiding licenses—is on the case. IJ has “filed a federal constitutional lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey to defend economic liberty” and is actively working to take down this “abuse of public power for private gain.”
The bad news is this is hardly the only time a state has passed a bizarrely specific and frankly ridiculous law at the behest of an industry unwilling to do the work to succeed on its own.
The whole reason the law exists is strikingly similar to the case in New Jersey: The Wisconsin Bakers Association wants to avoid competition. In fact, faced with the prospect of legalizing home baked goods, the organization actually argued that home baking sales shouldn’t be legal because—and this is a real quote—”too many small bakery owners are over burdened by regulations, we don’t need more competition, we need cooperation from our government!”
The “logic” here is that bakers with commercial kitchens are over-regulated, so it’s only fair that bakers with home kitchens be regulated out of business too.
It’s almost like the Wisconsin Bakers Association forgot that the government they want to cooperate with them is the source of their own regulatory pain.
The situation gets even sillier when you realize just how specific the ban is. Selling canned goods made in a home kitchen is legal. Raw apple cider made at home? That’s a-okay with Wisconsin. Homemade popcorn? Also fine. But selling a cake made in the same kitchen on the same appliances will somehow, suddenly, make you a menace to society.
In each of these cases, the root problem is not the silly ban at hand. Rather, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the appropriate role of government—and the all too obvious fact that if government has unfair, easily corrupted regulatory power to sell, it will always find a buyer.