Of Helmets and Yarmulkes

Former U.S. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz died one month ago, succumbing to esophageal cancer on November 29 at age 70. A graduate of Brandeis and Columbia, Solarz, a Democrat who represented constituents from Staten Island as well as his native Brooklyn, had an eventful career in politics. It spanned over two decades, beginning in 1969 with his days in the New York State Assembly and ending in 1993 in the House of Representatives. (He was succeeded by Republican Susan Molinari; Michael Grimm of the GOP will represent the 13th District as of January.) In particular he was considered by colleagues to be a foreign policy expert, chairing both the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Subcommittee on Africa.

Among his most enduring achievements, however, was the protection of religious freedoms and Constitutional rights. Thanks to the efforts of the late congressman, whose parents were of Polish-Jewish background, Jewish military service members have greater freedom to practice their religion without government intrusion.

Solarz’s involvement with this issue grew out of a 1986 Supreme Court case, Goldman v. Weinberger (as in former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger), which concerned an Orthodox Air Force officer who was ordered not to wear his yarmulke. It was an order that the officer refused to obey.

Upon hearing the case, the highest court in the land sided with the U.S. Air Force, stating that constitutional protections did not extend to members of the military the way they did to individuals in civilian life. However, the court did not state that the Constitution completely prohibited religious apparel for those in uniform, merely that those items did not enjoy absolute protection. It was something of a gray area — one suited to a Congressional remedy.

In the legislative aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling, it was Solarz who spoke out to secure more robust freedom of religion for Jewish soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Accomplishing that was no easy task, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, observed in the Jewish Week after Solarz’s death. Of the “yarmulke bill,” Nadler noted:

The end result of Solarz’s efforts was a change to the U.S. Code. Now, Title 10, Subtitle A, Part II, Chapter 45, Section 774 reads: “…[A] member of the armed forces may wear an item of religious apparel while wearing the uniform of the member’s armed force.”

While the introduction of the new law remedied the issue in the other four branches of the military in the late 1980’s, the prohibition in uniform protocol managed to endure within the United States Coast Guard until 2006 when a Hasidic member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary successfully challenged the uniform policy of that service, too. There can be little doubt that his success was rooted at least in part in the precedent of Solarz’s work some two decades prior.

It’s not just Jewish military personnel who have benefitted from the legacy of Solarz’s legislative initiative. Today service members from a wide range of religious backgrounds, including Sikhs who have strict religious rules regarding hair and turbans, can participate in the military with a uniform waiver, allowing them to observe the tenets of their faith while serving in the armed forces.

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Of Helmets and Yarmulkes

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