NEWARK, N.J. — Roman Catholic officials in New Jersey say they will not appeal a federal judge’s rejection of their challenge to a law that bars private religious cemeteries from selling headstones.
U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp ruled last month that the suit by the archdiocese and two parishioners had failed to show a constitutional violation. The archdiocese of Newark said Friday that officials “continue to believe that the law is unjust” but will not appeal the ruling by Monday’s deadline.
The law stemmed from a 2013 expansion of the archdiocese’s inscription rights program, the proceeds of which were 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 sued, arguing the church had an unfair advantage due to its tax-exempt status and relationship with parishioners. 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.”
The Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which represented the archdiocese, said 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 said in a statement that the law “punishes both the church for seeking to exercise its ministry to parishioners, and parishioners for seeking to exercise their freedom of choice to select a memorial provider.”
But the archdiocese said it was ceasing efforts to challenge the law after evaluating the matter “including the time and energy required to seek an ultimate resolution of the issue through a lengthy appeal process.” More than 800 parishioners who already purchased inscription rights for monuments within archdiocese cemeteries are unaffected by the decision and “Catholic cemeteries of the archdiocese will honor those commitments at their proper time,” officials said.