Jim Mumaw, the funeral home director who was criticized for refusing to handle AIDS-related deaths, has decided to drop the policy after consulting with federal officials.
Mumaw said Tuesday that U. S. Department of Justice staff members in Washington told him that he has been violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which forbids discrimination against people with AIDS, their families and friends.
The Lancaster businessman said he did not know that his policy was illegal before he checked with the federal agency.
"Yes, (the federal law) does say that I cannot turn down people due to the HIV virus alone," Mumaw said in a prepared statement. "Yes, I must comply with this law. Yes, I also have the right to disagree with that law and to use the system which is in place to voice my concerns, should I choose to."
Mumaw, 38, runs a small mortuary founded by his family in 1913. He was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month when Lancaster activists cited his policy during a news conference concerning AIDS discrimination.
Mumaw said he has been referring AIDS-related deaths to other funeral homes because he is worried about the risk of infection and its impact on the children, ages 8 and 10, he is raising as a single father.
The funeral director also said staff members at the state Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers told him that his policy did not violate state regulations.
But Mumaw learned last week that the U. S. Justice Department is investigating a handful of complaints about funeral homes that turn away AIDS-related deaths or impose higher charges for handling them. After confirming that his policy was illegal, Mumaw said, he decided to abandon it.
"I have learned much from this," he said. "And I would, given the same circumstances, make the same decision in regard to my children.
"What is needed now is for the . . . state Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers to enact clear and defined rules to guide others who have serious questions about this issue."
The board's interim executive officer, Neil Fippen, said Tuesday that the board's attorneys are still researching the issue.
"If we receive some legal directive, we're perfectly willing to share it," Fippen said. "We don't have that information yet. Everything I have is hearsay. We have to be assured that (the federal law) covers this situation."
He said the board will not discard the complaint filed against Mumaw, merely because he has publicly stated that he will now handle AIDS-related deaths.
"We investigate actions, not policies," Fippen said. "We will look at whatever occurred."
The board can impose a fine or suspend a funeral director's license if it determines that "unprofessional conduct" has occurred.
Fippen said he will brief Richard Yanes, an attorney who takes over next week as executive officer of the regulatory board, regarding the Mumaw case.
The Mumaw complaint was filed by the Catalyst Foundation for AIDS Awareness and Care, founded by Susan E. Lawrence, a Lancaster physician whose husband died of AIDS-related illness.
"I'm very pleased that he changed his mind and is going to provide services in a non-discriminatory fashion," Lawrence said Tuesday after hearing about Mumaw's decision.
She added: "I'm sorry that we had to go through with all the filing of complaints and that it wasn't as simple as Mr. Mumaw just agreeing to educate himself and his employees about AIDS."
Industry officials say mortuary workers are required by federal law to use special precautions in handling all human remains because workers do not always know when a contagious disease may be present. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have identified three HIV infections among morgue or mortuary employees that may be work-related.