Pittsburgh Rabbi Wasserman favorably settles ‘funeral director’ interpretation case

Pittsburgh Rabbi Wasserman favorably settles ‘funeral director’ interpretation case

Rabbi Daniel Wasserman
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman

Rabbi Daniel E. Wasserman announced Monday a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Commonwealth’s Board of Funeral Directors, Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation of the Department of State and Board of Professional and Occupational Affairs today in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. He was represented in the matter by Stephen M. Pincus, a partner in Stember Feinstein Doyle Payne & Kravec, Pittsburgh; the complaint was filed by previous counsel Efrem M. Grail, Patrick Yingling and Jeremy Feinstein of Reed Smith LLP in Pittsburgh.

“This is an important victory for religious freedom in Pennsylvania,” said Rabbi Wasserman in a prepared statement. “This memorandum explicitly clarifies Pennsylvania law, and guarantees that individuals engaged in performing the ceremonies, customs, religious rites or practices of any denomination or sect are excluded from the definition of ‘funeral director’ in Pennsylvania law, as has always been the case. This includes churches, meetings, mosques, synagogues, temples or other congregations of religious believers engaged in handling, transporting, preparing and disposing of deceased human bodies. No longer will the filing of scurrilous complaints and other attempts of the “death industry” to control and co-opt non-profit, religious funeral practices and rites be allowed to stress and curtail our religious expression. Today, in the Commonwealth that bears his name, William Penn would be proud. ”

Rabbi Wasserman is the rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation in Pittsburgh and a director of the funerary practices of the Vaad HaRabonim of Pittsburgh and its Chevra Kadisha. After he conducted a religious burial in 2009, a commercial funeral director accused him of breaking state law and reported him to the State Board of Funeral Directors. This report led to the rabbi’s investigation by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation for “practicing as a funeral director without a license.”  He was investigated for 28 months due to multiple subsequent complaints by funeral directors for conducting the funerals of other members of his congregation in 2010 and 2011, under similar circumstances.

In August 2012, the Rabbi’s legal team filed suit against the Commonwealth, asserting that its arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Law violated the rabbi’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as under Article 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Today’s Memorandum settles that suit, dismissing Rabbi Wasserman’s claims with prejudice.

The statement from Wasserman says,

According to the Memorandum’s terms, not only are all religious leaders and their congregations now exempt from the definition of “funeral director,” but the State Board of Funeral Directors must implement new enforcement procedures and notify all licensed funeral directors and other interested parties about this exemption and new enforcement procedures, and the Pennsylvania Board of Professional and Occupational Affairs must conduct training for its attorneys, paralegals and investigators to ensure that the First Amendment and Pennsylvania Constitutional rights of individuals engaged in performing religious burials are not violated.

“This settlement will have the important consequence of lifting the threat of investigation that has hung over the heads of Pennsylvania religious leaders of all faiths,” said Mr. Pincus.  “This was a matter worth pursuing, not simply on the Rabbi’s behalf, but on behalf of the members of every temple, meeting, mosque or other religious congregations who are entitled to be buried as their religions dictate.”

Copies of the Memorandum of Understanding and the Stipulation of Dismissal are attached.