An Orthodox rabbi from Pittsburgh has filed a federal lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Board of Funeral Directors and two other state officials, saying that the board is violating Jews’ religious freedom by insisting that licensed funeral directors oversee all burials.
The suit from Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Synagogue in Squirrel Hill accuses the state Board of Funeral Directors of intimidating rabbis, synagogues, grieving Jewish families and funeral homes that cooperate with rabbis, in a quest for profit. It was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, based in Scranton.
Beyond what he does for his own synagogue, Rabbi Wasserman leads the group that organizes ritual mourning and burial for the wider Orthodox Jewish community in Pittsburgh.
The lawsuit 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,” according to the lawsuit, which cites state and federal constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion.
“Plaintiff — unlike some clergy from other religions — is now being threatened with civil action and criminal prosecution, including stiff fines and even imprisonment, 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,” according to the lawsuit.
The rabbis comply with all state health rules for treatment of dead bodies, and the State Department of Health, not the State Board of Funeral Directors, is responsible for seeing that those rules are followed, according to the lawsuit.
The health department doesn’t require a licensed funeral director, according tot he lawsuit, and no rabbi could become a funeral director because of a religious prohibition against embalming.
Jewish law says funerals must take place quickly under strict rabbinic supervision that can’t be delegated to a non-religious or for-profit service.
Rabbi Wasserman has been threatened with fines and prosecution for acting as a funeral director without a license, according to the lawsuit.
Funeral directors have told some Jewish families that their burials would be illegal without a licensed funeral director, according to the lawsuit.
The state hasn’t similarly interfered with burials of the Amish and some other religious groups that don’t use funeral directors, according to the lawsuit.
Orthodox rabbis have overseen all funeral preparations for centuries, using a funeral home only for ritual washing according to Jewish law, according to the lawsuit. Orthodox rabbis do not charge for funeral services.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against interpreting the state funeral-director law to mean that religiously-supervised funerals require a licensed funeral director when there is no embalming or fee-for-service. It also asks for more than $75,000 in damages, plus attorney fees and court costs.
Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which includes all of the defendants, said no one could comment because none had yet seen the lawsuit.