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Rabbi Sues Pennsylvania Board of Funeral Directors

An Orthodox rabbi is suing Pennsylvania’s Board of Funeral Directors, accusing it of violating religious freedom.
By Rachel Hirshfeld
First Publish: 8/7/2012, 1:43 PM

Jewish funeral
Jewish funeral
Reuters

An Orthodox rabbi is suing Pennsylvania’s Board of Funeral Directors, accusing it of violating religious freedom by insisting that that licensed funeral directors oversee all funerals and burials.

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,” The Pittsburg Post-Gazette reported.

Citing the freedom of religion, the lawsuit aims  “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 alleges that the board has targeted Orthodox Jews rather than Amish or Quakers because Jews are perceived to have more money to spend on funeral ceremonies, according to the newspaper.

The lawsuit stated that the plaintiff, unlike 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.”

Pennsylvania rabbis comply with all health regulations for treatment of dead bodies mandated by the State Department of Health, according to the lawsuit.

Under Jewish law, care of the dead is a religious duty that cannot be delegated. Rabbis also cannot become licensed funeral directors due to the prohibition against embalming

Furthermore, 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 compensation for damages, as well as for attorney and court fees.