Newark, N.J. — The Newark archdiocese, the largest single provider of in-ground burials in New Jersey, must give up a lucrative companion business -- the marketing of headstones and private crypts -- under a bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Chris Christie.
The measure, which passed both houses of the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support, goes into effect in one year, allowing the archdiocese time to wind down without imperiling sales in progress at its Catholic cemeteries.
The archdiocese became the first religious group in the state to enter the headstone business two years ago, alarming dozens of small, independent companies that produce monuments and crypts.
The dealers' trade association, the Monument Builders of New Jersey, waged an 18-month legal fight and lobbying campaign against the move, contending the practice would spread to other dioceses and then to the owners of other religious cemeteries.
The archdiocese returned fire with a lobbying effort of its own, along with a personal appeal from Archbishop John Myers, who exhorted Catholics to fight the law.
Once in effect, the measure will bar all religious groups from the market for headstones and family crypts. It also will bar those groups from owning funeral homes and mortuaries, though none currently do.
The law does not impact large, communal mausoleums, which sometimes contain the remains of thousands of people.
John Burns Jr., the president of the trade association, said the law will do nothing less than save his industry from annihilation, contending private firms would not be able to compete on a level playing field with a tax-exempt group like the church. In time, Burns said, the archdiocese would have developed a monopoly.
"Thank God," he said. "If Christie didn't sign this bill, it would have been a short period of time before we were out of business."
In the 18 months since the archdiocese began marketing headstones, Burns said, some his colleagues saw business drop off by 40 percent.
This is the second time the bill has come before Christie. In February, he conditionally vetoed a nearly identical measure, recommending it be rewritten to reflect the yearlong waiting period. The earlier version would have taken effect immediately. The Senate and Assembly swiftly reapproved it with the change.
Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment. He has previously said church officials were disappointed by the measure's approval in the Legislature. At the same time, he said, they were grateful for the yearlong delay.
[Mark Mueller writes for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.]