Pennsylvania’s Board of Funeral Directors and two state officials are being sued by an Orthodox rabbi from Pittsburgh claiming that the state’s board violates religious freedoms by requiring that only licensed funeral directors oversee all burials, including Jewish ones.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on Monday that Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Synagogue filed a lawsuit in Scranton, PA against the Board of Funeral Directors, accusing the body of “intimidating rabbis, synagogues, grieving Jewish families and funeral homes…in a quest for profit” according to the article.
In addition to his duties at his own synagogue, Rabbi Wasserman also heads a group that organizes ritual mourning and burial for Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Jewish community.
Referencing the freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitution of the state and federal governments, the lawsuit seeks “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 lawsuit also claims that the state does not intervene with Amish burials and other religious groups that don’t use licensed funeral directors in their services. In contrast, the Pittsburgh rabbi charges that he has been fined for performing funeral services without a funeral director’s license.
“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,” stated the lawsuit.
Pennsylvania rabbis comply with all health regulations for treatment of dead bodies mandated by the State Department of Health according to the lawsuit.
Orthodox rabbis may not become funeral directors because of Jewish law’s prohibition against embalming. Additionally, Orthodox funerals must take place as quickly as possible under strict rabbinic supervision, which prohibits delegating supervision to a secular or for-profit service.
The lawsuit seeks to redefine Pennsylvania’s funeral-director law to mean that religiously-supervised funerals should not require a licensed funeral director when there is no embalming or service fees. It also demands at least $75,000 in compensation for damages, as well as for attorney and court fees.
Pennsylvania Department of State’s press secretary Ron Ruman declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, saying that it has not yet been seen and he is unaware if any other religious groups had also filed similar complaints. Rabbi Wasserman could not be immediately reached for comment.