Rabbi Sues Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors

All he wants to do is officiate at Jewish funerals. Is that so wrong?

Depending on whom you ask, it might be. So Rabbi Daniel E. Wasserman is going all the way to federal court for the right to perform funeral rites.

Wasserman, an Orthodox rabbi with Shaare Torah Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pa., near Pittsburgh, filed a lawsuit on Monday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania against the state board of funeral directors and other state officials. The suit accuses the board of violating the religious freedom of the state's clergy.

According to the 41-page complaint, Wasserman is "being threatened with civil action and criminal prosecution … 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."

"The State Board of Funeral Directors selectively enforces Pennsylvania's Funeral Director Law in a way that violates the religious freedom of the state's clergy, and all of the religious persons they serve," said Wasserman's lawyer, Efrem M. Grail, of Reed Smith LLP. "This suit seeks to restore religious persons and their chosen leaders' traditional right to practice their faith free from state intervention and harassment, while adhering to all applicable regulations of the Commonwealth's Department of Health."

According to Wasserman, who is the leader for funerary practice for the Pittsburgh Board of Orthodox rabbis, the Vaad Harabonim, he has been threatened with fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for conducting religious funerals in the place of commercial funeral directors.

In late 2009 he received a warning letter from a licensed funeral director after conducting a funeral ceremony. Wasserman was accused of breaking the law by not having a licensed funeral director there during the services. The director subsequently sent his letter of complaint to the board of funeral directors and "a number of other prominent funeral homes in Pittsburgh, including ones that primarily serve the Jewish community," the complaint says.

In May 2010, Wasserman was contacted by an investigator from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Enforcement and told he was being investigated for "practicing as a funeral director without a license." After that, some cemeteries tried to bar him from performing religious rites without the involvement of a funeral home.

Families have told the rabbi that they have been informed by funeral directors that the funeral and burial services he performs might be illegal. "There has been a significant chilling effect throughout the Orthodox Jewish community in Pittsburgh with respect to rabbis' right to carry out ritual preparation, burial, and mourning of a deceased person according to our interpretation of Jewish law, tradition, custom and practice," he said.

Jewish law requires that funerals be conducted within 24 hours of death by a rabbi. (Rabbis are forbidden from becoming licensed funeral directors because that requires learning to embalm, which is forbidden under Jewish law.) "Every person must be buried the same way, with the same casket, the same shroud, the same service," he said.

But that threatens funeral directors, he maintains, whose goal is to make money. "I presume that the funeral board sees this as a lucrative revenue stream for its licensees that it needs to protect," he told ABC News, adding that he does not get paid extra for performing funerals and that Amish in the state are allowed to do funerals without a funeral director. "Jewish tradition demands a community, not an outside profiteer or outside entity."

In January 2011, the state board investigated Wasserman a second time for allegedly performing funeral services for another long-time congregation member, for whom he had long performed other religious rites, including weddings, birthdays and other events. During this funeral, two uninvited licensed funeral directors stood at the back of the room. Their presence and behavior intimidated the mourners and upset the family of the deceased, the rabbi said.

"For the state to say I have to have some commercial licensees sit there and watch me do a religious service is beyond offensive, it is unconstitutional," Wasserman said.

The Pennsylvania Department of State issued this statement: "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. 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."