Rabbi sues state, says department selectively enforced funeral director laws

Rabbi sues state, says department selectively enforced funeral director laws

A Pittsburgh rabbi is suing the state claiming it is selectively enforcing its funeral director laws in a way that violates the rights of Orthodox Jewish clergy and the people they serve.  

Rabbi Daniel E. Wasserman, director of funerary practices for the the Vaad Harabonim of Pittsburgh and its chevra kadisha, filed his suit Monday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania against the Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors, the chief counsel to the Pennsylvania Department of State, and the director of State Department’s Bureau of Enforcement and Investigations.

Wasserman, who oversees religious burials and conducts traditional Jewish funerals, says he has been threatened with civil and criminal prosecution — including stiff fines and imprisonment — for conducting religious funerals in the place of commercial funeral directors.

But he asserts that other religious groups in the state — Amish, Quakers — are not held to the same standard. Indeed, Quaker and Muslim religious leaders are publicly supporting Wasserman in his case.

Wasserman is seeking at least $75,000 in damages. More important, said his lawyer, Efrem M. Grail, the rabbi is seeking a court injunction to protect his right to perform Jewish burial practices.

“At the end of the day, this case is not about money,” Grail told the Chronicle. “This case is about the Orthodox Jewish community, the Quakers, the Amish, the Muslims in Pennsylvania having the right, as William Penn did … to practice their religions in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone and is consistent with all Health Department regulations [and] in a manner consistent with their sincerely held beliefs.”

According to the 44-page complaint, Wasserman has been the subject of “unwarranted investigation for providing funeral and burial services to members of the Orthodox Jewish community.”

The suit says Wasserman has been the target of two state investigations — in 2009 and 2011. In the first probe, an investigator from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Enforcement told the rabbi he was being investigated for “conducting a funeral without a funeral director present,” according to the complaint.

But that same investigator told Wasserman that at least one religious group in the state — the Amish — conducts funerals for and performs burials of members of their faith without licensed funeral directors.

He also told Wasserman that changes were made to the wording of the state’s Certificate of Death and Disposition/ Transit Permit. That wording, according to Grail, only bolsters his client’s case that clergy may perform religious funeral practices, without a funeral director.

“We believe the law has always permitted it,” Grail said. “We believe the changes to the form … affirms and facilitates that right.”

In the second investigation, according to the suit, the same investigator looked into funeral services Wasserman performed for another longtime congregation member. During that congregant’s funeral, according go the complaint, two uninvited licensed funeral directors stood at the back of the room, “gathering evidence.”

“They clearly were not there as mourners; they were recognizable to people who knew them,” Grail said. “It was expressed to the rabbi later that they were intimidating and the family of the deceased felt offended. This is not kosher.”

Wasserman, who takes no fee for his service, has the support of Iman Abdusemih A. Tedese, director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and David Morrison, head trustee of the Conservative Quaker Burial Group, according to the complaint.

Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State, denied that Wasserman’s religious rights were ever violated and that his department is merely enforcing the law.

“The state Board of Funeral Directors does not prosecute individuals for exercising their religious beliefs or for exercising their constitutional rights, and has no intention of doing so,” Ruman said. “The complaint filed against the board does not even allege that the plaintiff was prosecuted for engaging in religious activity or exercising his constitutional rights.”

He said the Department of State is enforcing a so-called “practice act,” which “assures the health and safety of the public by ensuring the person performing the service has the education and training required under the act.”  

This particular act requires a licensed funeral director to be present when these services are performed, he added.

But Grail said the public health and safety are not threatened by the services Wasserman performs.

“If we were embalming, then there is public safety issue and the state would have a right to regulate and should,” he said, “but as you know, embalming is anathema in the Jewish tradition.”

Wasserman said the religious practices he performs — preparation of the deceased, the funeral, burial — go to the heart of Jewish tradition.

“It’s a solemn religious service and it is under the spiritual guidance of the rabbi and the religious community,” Wasserman said, “and it is our responsibility to do it.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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