Sep 05, 2019

Editor’s Note: Dustin Daniels, a high school senior from Tennessee, isn’t happy about how some of his state’s lawmakers are trampling our fundamental American values of religious freedom. In his essay that placed second in AU’s 2019 Student Essay Contest, Dustin said it’s easy to get discouraged by the barrage of Project Blitz-inspired bills like displaying “In God We Trust” in public high schools and legislation that would misuse religious freedom to harm LGBTQ people and others.

However, Dustin is inspired by students in places like South Carolina, Louisiana and Rhode Island who spoken up and taken action to successfully combat violations of religious freedom in their communities.

Below is Dustin’s second-place essay (for which he was awarded a $1,000 scholarship) on how young people can protect our fundamental American value of religious freedom. You can also read the first-place essay here, and be sure to check back tomorrow to read the third top essay.

By Dustin Daniels

In the past year, sweeping waves of legislation pushing for discrimination against minorities have made many Americans deeply concerned about the future of our country. As a young person, I sometimes admit I feel powerless as I see my federal, state, and local governments making harmful decisions on my behalf with little regard for my opinion. Despite our small opportunities within politics, young people can be a major driving force behind protecting our nation’s values by using our platforms to amplify our opinions to advocate for our nation’s core values. 

Recently, we’ve seen a coalition of socially conservative, Christian lawmakers, commonly referred to as the “Religious Right,” pushing for legislation to mandate their religious morality into law. Many of their proposed bills protect individuals, or even government entities, who use religion as a justification to discriminate. These bills are strategically meant to undo decades of progress and reset our laws to allow church and state to intermingle.  

In my home state, Tennessee, there has been a long history of legislation meant to fulfill a religious agenda. Our public schools are now required to prominently display the national motto and public buildings are allowed to post the Ten Commandments. The Tennessee General Assembly has proposed anti-LGBTQ legislation such as Senate Bill 1556 that gave mental health professionals the right to deny anyone service based their “sincerely-held principles.” Despite all the criticism, including opposition from the American Counseling Association, former Governor Haslam signed Senate Bill 1556 into law in 2016. There have been similar bills introduced in our legislature more recently, including House Bill 836 allowing adoption agencies to turn away prospective parents based solely on religious objections. All of these efforts by the Religious Right seek to do one thing: to create a government that only serves the interests of a shrinking majority while silencing the concerns of minorities.  

According to a most recent Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, 36% of younger millennials identify as religious “nones” and 8% identify with a non-Christian faith. As of June 2018, the GenForward Survey reported 14% of millennials identify as LGBTQ. Thus, we are disproportionately affected by these issues, especially since our generation is next in line to participate in our nation’s civic affairs. Inevitably, this new wave of discriminatory legislation would negatively impact all aspects of life for many young people moving forward.  

Throughout my life, I’ve witnessed how these attacks on vulnerable minorities have impacted me. These attacks become personal for me every time I have to confront religious displays and messages in my public school or when I go to a town meeting and I’m coerced to stand for a sectarian prayer. However, I refuse to allow my rights to be compromised to fulfill a political agenda. The time to stand up for our principles begins now.

In order to inform others, we must inform ourselves. We must keep up with what our politicians are saying and doing around us. As children of the digital age, we can access this information in minutes. We can use this information to further our opinions to our legislators. This can be writing a letter to your representative, speaking at government meetings, attending a peaceful protest, or contacting civil rights organizations, such as Americans United, to investigate legal violations in your school. All of these actions can effectively push for equal justice.  

Jessica Ahlquist was a sixteen-year-old student at Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island, when she began questioning an eight-foot tall prayer mural on the wall of the auditorium. When the mural was being discussed in school committee meetings, Jessica would show up to speak out about how the prayer mural excluded her as an atheist in the school. Despite the massive amounts of violent threats and backlash she received, she continued voicing her opposition at the school committee meetings. When the committee voted in favor of the mural, Jessica filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Cranston. Nine months later, a federal district judge ruled the school’s display of the prayer mural unconstitutional, requiring its removal.  

Throughout the long journey, Jessica started a Facebook group against the mural, spoke to local media outlets, and gained national attention for her activism. Nationwide, thousands of young people heard her story, and it inspired students such as Harrison Hopkins in South Carolina and Damon Fowler in Louisiana to challenge prayers at their graduation ceremonies. Through small actions, like speaking at school committee meetings, it eventually led Jessica Ahlquist to a constitutional victory inspiring others across the nation to do the same in their communities.

We must remember to hold our lawmakers accountable to these sincerely held principles. In our small actions, we gain knowledge, experience, and power to steer the nation toward justice. The next generation has an advantage to broadcast our voices across the world, to bring change in all levels of the government, and to make this country serve all people, instead of some.