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Squirrel Hill rabbi declares 'important victory for religious freedom'

| Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, 1:22 p.m.

A Squirrel Hill rabbi says an agreement with state officials affirming the right of clergy and congregations to perform rites for the dead is a victory for religious freedom.

Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, who filed papers Monday settling the federal lawsuit he filed in August, said it was important that the agreement extend to all religions.

“I didn't want something that applied only to me,” said Wasserman, 47, head of Shaare Torah Congregation.

In August, Wasserman sued the state Board of Funeral Directors and two Pennsylvania Department of State officials in U.S. District Court in Scranton, claiming they violated his religious right to conduct traditional Jewish burials.

Wasserman said the board twice since 2010 investigated him for performing burial rites in violation of state law governing the funeral home industry. It requires a licensed funeral director to be involved in embalming and cosmetic services, among other things.

Wasserman accused the board of taking actions to financially protect the funeral home industry by using a law that did not apply to him, because he does not embalm bodies or charge for services.

No charges were filed, but Wasserman claimed the threat of fines and possible jail time had a chilling effect on people exercising their religious freedom.

“I said all along that what we are doing is right and legal,” Wasserman said. “The only ones who couldn't see it were the funeral directors blinded by their desire to protect their revenue stream.”

No one admitted wrongdoing in the settlement. Officials with the state and funeral directors industry did not view the deal as harming their authority or position.

“As the memorandum memorializes, the funeral board will continue its past practices,” said Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Department of State. “As per the memorandum, the board has never discriminated against anyone's religion and never will.”

The settlement did little to alter business for the funeral industry, said John Eirkson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association.

“We don't see anything new or different,” he said. “As long as someone isn't profiting under the auspices of religion, I don't think there is a problem.”

Imam AbduSemih Tadese of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh in Oakland supported the resolution to Wasserman's lawsuit.

“This is a good day for the system the founding fathers put together when it comes to exercising our religious freedoms,” Tadese said. “The issue in the past was the fact there was no clear line drawn between what was religious and what was not. ... It's very easy now for people who want to exercise those rights to do so.”

According to the settlement, any complaints that could involve religious burial rites will go first to prosecutors with the state Board of Professional and Occupational Affairs before any investigation begins.

The state agreed to train its workers about rights related to performing religious burials and to notify licensed funeral directors about the new enforcement procedures.

No financial arrangements were included in the court filing, and Wasserman said he could not discuss any settlement terms.

The Tribune-Review filed Right to Know requests with the Department of State and attorney general's office, which defended the state in the lawsuit.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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