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Civil Rights

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Settlement of an important civil rights lawsuit involving religious freedom announced December 17, 2012.

This settlement affects the civil rights of rabbis and other Pennsylvania religious leaders. It also guarantees religious freedom for Pennsylvania religious leaders of any denomination or sect who perform ceremonies, customs, religious rites or practices. Such individuals are now excluded from the definition of “funeral director.”

Stephen Pincus represented Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, the Rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation in Pittsburgh. After the Rabbi conducted a religious burial in 2009, a commercial funeral director accused him of breaking state law.

The funeral director reported the Rabbi to the State Board of Funeral Directors, opening an investigation by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation. The Rabbi was investigated for 28 months for “practicing as a funeral director without a license.”

In August 2012, the Rabbi filed suit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in federal court in Harrisburg. This civil rights lawsuit claimed that the Rabbi’s religious freedom and rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as under Article 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, had been violated.

The settlement provides that all religious leaders and their congregations in Pennsylvania are relieved of the definition of “funeral director.” The State Board of Funeral Directors must begin new enforcement procedures and the Pennsylvania Board of Professional and Occupational Affairs must train its attorneys, paralegals and investigators to make certain that the civil rights of individuals who perform religious burials are not violated.

“This settlement will have the important consequence of lifting the threat of investigation that has hung over the heads of Pennsylvania religious leaders of all faiths,” said Mr. Pincus. “This was a matter worth pursuing, not simply on the Rabbi’s behalf, but on behalf of the members of every temple, meeting, mosque or other religious congregations who are entitled to be buried as their religions dictate.”

Two news articles related to this civil rights settlement appear below:

Clergy to be Allowed to Conduct Funerals

Squirrel Hill Rabbi Declares Important Victory for Religious Freedom

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