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Illinois Court Upholds State Law Designed to Meet Need of Observant Jews for Immediate Burials

The Illinois Court of Appeals has upheld by a 3-2 ruling in Chicago the validity of the nation’s only state law, designed to meet the needs of observant Jews for immediate burials, which makes illegal any contract in Illinois between a gravediggers union and a cemetery trade group to refuse such burials on Sundays.

Dennis Rapps, executive director of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), which was the attorney of record in the litigation, said the next step could be an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court by Local 106 of the Service Employes International Union. The local had originally filed a charge of breach of contract against the Cemetery Association of Greater Chicago.

Local 106 had strongly fought the measure in the Illinois Legislature, contending it would violate the National Labor Relations Act and that it was unconstitutional on several grounds. Judge Arthur Donne of the Circuit Court of Cook County upheld the statute on May 16 and Local 106 said it would appeal the ruling.

Donne said that the new law did not violate Local 106’s bargaining rights because, as he interpreted the labor contract, it did not ban work on Sundays by union members. Donne stayed implementation of his ruling pending the outcome of the appeal.

The Court of Appeals, in its ruling two weeks ago, rejected union contentions that the law violated the First Amendment in that it mandated “involuntary servitude” and it “impermissably” promoted the religious wishes of one group; and that it forced some gravediggers to accomodate the religious wishes of others. Donne did not directly rule on the constitutional issues.

Rapps said that Erwin Katz of Chicago, a member of the local COLPA chapter, and State Attorney Neil Hartigan were attorneys for intervenors in the case. Katz represents Chicago area rabbinic and congregational groups. At the request of Agudath Israel, which played a key role in bringing about passage of the law, State Senator Howard Carmiel, the law’s principal legislative sponsor, represented other Jewish organizations as intervenor-defendants in the legal actions.

Rapps said that such intervention was needed to insure the Jewish community’s interest in speedy burials, as required by Jewish law (halacha).

The only other state to provide such accomodation to the burial needs of observant Jews is New York. Rapps said that in 1972, as a result of a COLPA effort, the New York State Cemetery Board issued a regulation providing for legal holiday burials when cemeteries are usually closed. He said Sundays are not a problem in New York since those are regular workdays for gravediggers in that state.

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