Clergy to be allowed to conduct funerals
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A Pittsburgh rabbi will drop a federal lawsuit against the state board of funeral directors in exchange for clarification of the law that governs funeral practices.
Under a settlement filed Monday in Scranton, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation -- or any other clergy member -- can conduct religious burial services without the presence of a licensed funeral director and the state must make sure that funeral directors understand that.
"We had contended all along that this was perfectly legal," Rabbi Wasserman said Monday. "It needed to be clarified and now it is."
The Department of State agreed, saying the settlement "memorializes" a legal position that the funeral board already followed.
Rabbi Wasserman sued the state board in August to prevent it from requiring funeral directors to be present for Jewish funerals, saying it was an infringement on religious rights.
In exchange for his dismissal of the suit, the state agreed to publish notice that clergy conducting burial ceremonies are exempt from the definition of "funeral director" under the Funeral Director Law.
Since 2010, the Department of State's Bureau of Occupational and Professional Affairs had twice investigated Rabbi Wasserman after receiving complaints from local funeral directors that he performed burial rites in violation of the law.
The rabbi contended that the law does not apply to clergy like him because he doesn't charge for services or embalm bodies.
No action was taken after the investigations for those very reasons. In court papers filed as part of the discovery process, the state said that the Funeral Director Law "does not apply and has never been applied" to clergy.
Rabbi Wasserman's lawyer, Stephen Pincus, said the problem has been that the "ambiguous" language of the Funeral Director Law had allowed funeral directors to file complaints against clergy members they see as competition.
He said the lawsuit was filed to clarify the law so the rabbi could practice his religion without fear of prosecution.
As part of the settlement deal, the state board will send out a notice within 90 days to all funeral directors telling them of the agreement.
The Bureau of Occupational and Professional Affairs also is required to instruct its lawyers, staff and investigators about the Wasserman case so that clergy are left alone in the future.
First Published December 18, 2012 12:00 am