Matt Powers · January 24, 2024
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SACRAMENTO, Calif.—On Tuesday, a federal judge filed a final order in a first-of-its kind challenge to restrictions on the free speech and economic liberty of end-of-life doulas. The consent order states that the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau can no longer require end-of-life doulas, who do not perform traditional funerals, to obtain costly funeral-establishment and funeral-director licenses. Tuesday’s ruling is the conclusion of a 2020 lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ), on behalf of Sacramento-area doulas Akhila Murphy and Donna Peizer, and their nonprofit Full Circle of Living and Dying.
An end-of-life doula is not a funeral director, but rather a layperson who helps families host home funerals for loved ones who pass away. In addition, doulas often help plan for someone’s passing, provide emotional support to the family, and are present for any needs in the days leading up to the home funeral.
“Everybody deserves to know their end-of-life options, and to choose the one that best fits their unique needs,” said Akhila. “I’m ecstatic that Full Circle, and other death doulas throughout the state, can continue to provide this valuable service for families who are seeking home funerals.”
Tuesday’s order comes almost a year to the day after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled that various regulations imposed on end-of-life doulas in California violate their constitutional rights.
“This is a complete and total win for both free speech rights and the right to earn an honest living,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “Not only does this victory ensure our clients can continue to provide end-of-life care for those who seek it out, but it also sets important precedent for the rights of all Americans.”
In 2019, Akhila and Donna were informed by the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau that their nonprofit organization (Full Circle of Living and Dying) was breaking the law. They were told that they were acting and advertising as a funeral establishment without a license. In order to come into compliance with the law, they were told they would need to build a funeral home with a room dedicated to storing or embalming bodies and pass a funeral director licensing exam. But doulas don’t store or embalm bodies, and most of the funeral director exam covers topics that are entirely irrelevant to the work doulas do.
“It was clear from the start that the state’s regulations had nothing to do with protecting the public or ensuring safety,” said IJ Attorney Ben Field. “These regulations only served one purpose, and that was preventing alternatives to traditional funerals from succeeding in the market. But now, Californians are free to choose the end-of-life care that best suits them.”
“We’re hopeful that this victory makes it clear to other licensing boards throughout the country that they cannot restrict free speech and economic liberty rights without a legitimate public safety reason for doing so,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock.