Rabbi sues over Pennsylvania law on funeral directors, last rites
"When you are just trying to do something right, trying to do God's work ... and others interfere for no other reason than profit, it's frustrating." -Rabbi Daniel Wasserman
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An Orthodox rabbi is suing the state board of funeral directors, accusing it of violating religious freedom by insisting that licensed funeral directors oversee all funerals and burials.
The suit from Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Synagogue in Squirrel Hill was filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in Scranton. It accuses the state board of intimidating rabbis, synagogues, Jewish families and funeral homes that work with rabbis, in a quest for profit.
The suit is "to preserve and restore the historical right of clergy to conduct religious burial and funeral rites free from interference and harassment by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and professional, secular funeral directors who serve no health or safety interest," the suit says, citing constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion.
Rabbi Wasserman "is now being threatened with civil action and criminal prosecution ... for conducting religious funerals in place of licensed funeral directors who, under color of state law, interfere in purely religious observances for no other justification than personal profit."
The suit alleges that the board has targeted Orthodox Jews rather than Amish or Quakers because Jews are perceived to have more money to spend on funerals.
Efrem Grail, the rabbi's attorney, called the suit a last resort. "We have been trying to talk to them for the last two years, and they wouldn't talk to us. Hopefully, we will have a dialogue through this formal court process," he said.
The suit was filed against all members of the funeral directors board and against the chief counsel and head of investigations for the Pennsylvania Department of State. It seeks an injunction against interpreting the state Funeral Directors Law to mean that religious funerals require a licensed funeral director when there is no embalming, cosmetology or payment. It asks for more than $75,000 in damages, plus attorney fees and court costs.
Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State, had no comment because he hadn't seen the lawsuit.
At stake is the interpretation and application of the state Funeral Directors Law, most recently revised in 1951. Rabbi Wasserman argues that the law governs only the business, embalming and cosmetology practices of funeral directors and doesn't apply to funerals that don't involve embalming, make-up or monetary charges. He maintains that until recently no one had attempted to enforce it against rabbis and that it isn't used against other faith groups with similar funerary practices.
Although the law says a funeral director must be present, "this was an accommodation that had been recognized informally," Mr. Grail said.
Mr. Ruman said he didn't know exactly why the law was written but that "the general gist of all the laws we have for whatever services are being performed is to ensure that the person doing it has the education and training required by law."
The suit argues that funerary health issues are governed by the state Department of Health, which allows people other than funeral directors to carry out all duties. The suit says that the rabbis follow all health laws.
"When you are just trying to do something right, trying to do God's work ... and others interfere for no other reason than profit, it's frustrating," said Rabbi Wasserman. He leads the group that organizes ritual mourning and burial for the Orthodox Jewish community in Pittsburgh.
Jewish law requires burial within 24 hours of death unless there is a pressing reason for a short delay. It forbids embalming. He used to rent a mortuary table in a local funeral home to wash the body above a floor drain while prayers were said and a vigil was kept. No one from the funeral home took part.
Under Jewish law, care of the dead is a religious duty that can't be delegated. Nor can rabbis become licensed funeral directors because that requires learning to embalm, the suit said.
According to the suit, a funeral director filed a complaint against Rabbi Wasserman after a burial in McKeesport on Dec. 28, 2009. He was interviewed by a representative of the state Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation, who said to expect a report within 90 days. But the suit says Rabbi Wasserman received no report until June 6, 2012, when he was informed that the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs had chosen to "defer formal prosecution against you" but "reserves the right to reopen this matter for any reason."
Meanwhile, the suit says, a second complaint was lodged after two funeral directors showed up at a June 2010 funeral in Shaare Torah. The suit says they "intimidated the mourners through their actions." After that, the suit said, funeral homes that Rabbi Wasserman had rented for washing told him they had been threatened with loss of their license if they let him continue. He set up a room for ritual washing in his synagogue, but later contracted with outlying funeral homes after the synagogue board expressed fear of legal action against them.
Cemeteries have barred him from burials and "families have also informed Rabbi Wasserman that they were told by funeral directors 'to be careful' about using the religious services offered by Rabbi Wasserman because they would not be in accordance with state law," the suit said.
This has limited Rabbi Wasserman's ability to provide religious burials and produced "a chilling effect throughout the Orthodox Jewish community in Pittsburgh," the suit said.
Imam Abdusemih Tadese of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh supports the rabbi. Both faiths share a ban on embalming and a requirement to bury within a day. Although he hasn't faced direct opposition, resistance from funeral directors has caused unacceptable delays, he said.
"The First Amendment makes it very clear that there is a line between church and state," he said. "The issue is that the line is not drawn where it is supposed to be."
First Published August 7, 2012 12:00 am