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Stephen Solarz: The Jewish Constituent’s Best Friend

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To reverse the effect of this decision, Solarz took the lead in drafting a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” It restored the old constitutional rule as a matter of federal law. The bill was adopted unanimously by both Houses of Congress in 1993 – after Solarz had been redistricted out of his seat – but it was held unconstitutional as applicable to the states in a sharply divided 6-to-3 ruling by the Supreme Court. The law still controls the federal government, however, as a unanimous Supreme Court held a few years ago.

Solarz asked me to reserve a seat for him in the courtroom for the oral argument of the case in which the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was challenged. When we left the courtroom and it looked as if most of the justices would rule against the law, he shook his head in disbelief. “These questions,” he said, “were never seriously debated in the Congress. We thought protection of religious practice was fundamental.”

Solarz was dealt cruel blows in political infighting. His Congressional district – in which he enjoyed enormous popularity – was cold-bloodedly carved up in 1992 and he was left to run a futile race in an overwhelmingly Hispanic district. His drive for government service remained strong, however. On the very day that one of Bill Clinton’s many girlfriends publicly revealed her relationship with the then-presidential candidate, Solarz – by then a former congressman who had won an international reputation – announced his support of Clinton.

Solarz thought he was entitled to some loyalty after Clinton was elected. He knew more world leaders personally than probably any other leading Democrat, and he had his eye on either the UN ambassadorship or becoming ambassador to India. Because the press had aired a phony story concerning Solarz’s efforts to get a U.S. visa for someone who was suspected of being a Hong Kong Mafioso, the Clinton White House withdrew Solarz’s ambassadorial nomination. He would have been a phenomenal ambassador, given his personal, political, scholarly, and rhetorical skills.

Rosenblum’s book on Rabbi Sherer quotes a letter from Solarz to Sherer in which the congressman wrote: “There is nothing more important to me than saving Jewish lives.” His record of accomplishment proved that he not only saved Jewish lives but substantially enhanced Jewish life.

Nathan Lewin is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

About the Author: Nathan Lewin, a former president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School where he teaches “Religious Minorities in Supreme Court Litigation.”

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