Do the courts have to settle every issue?
That is the big question in Heffner v. Murphy, a lawsuit filed in federal court seeking to strike down a 1952 Pennsylvania law that forbids funeral homes from serving food.
“The consumers are the ones that have come forward and asked us to do this,” said Chip Snyder, of Charles F. Snyder Funeral Home. “They are baffled. … They tell us, ‘That’s a stupid law.’ ”
Federal District Judge John E. Jones III agreed, striking down the law because its reason for being — that funeral homes are incapable of safely providing food — is no longer true.
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The law had a “rational basis” in 1952, but no longer does, the judge concluded.
A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Jones’ ruling, saying the law made sense when passed, and that’s good enough to keep it on the books.
The funeral home directors make a good case for opposing the law.
Chad Snyder, a director at the Snyder funeral home, said his locations in Lancaster, Lititz and Millersville offered food at 40 to 50 funeral services during the 10-month span in 2013 that it was legal to do so.
“It’s basically about extending our level of accommodation,” he adds. “We look at our facilities as family gathering places for loved ones. … It was very successful while we did it — we had a lot of positive experiences.”
What’s most strange about the lawsuit is that it had to be filed, at all.
Few states have such laws and, as noted above, the case for them — that funeral home food is somehow bad for you — is pretty thin.
But rather than going to court, opponents of the law should be looking to the General Assembly.
Lawmakers, it seems to us, could repeal the law and simply add funeral homes to the establishments covered by state health standards applied to restaurants.
And the State Board of Funeral Directors should be lobbying for this legislative solution.
Whether the 1952 law makes any sense in 2014 is a fair question. The answer is emphatically no.
Relying on the courts for a fix, however, is a failure of leadership from the Legislature, the entity in the best position to provide one.
It apparently will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit ruling, and it is arguable that the nation’s highest court has better things to do than review outdated laws regarding prepared food.
Our lawmakers, who seem to be busying themselves these days mostly with avoiding big issues, such as public employee pension reform, ought to do grieving families a favor and bring this law up to date.