"My generation is the key to change,” said Ranen Miao of Short Hills, N.J., in the closing words of his winning submission to Americans United’s 2019 Student Essay Contest. He continued, “Today, young voices matter more than ever: together, with shared conviction and faith, we can create an inclusive future that defends both religious freedom and social justice.”

The importance of young people raising their voices, and older folks listening, has always been true. Now with the separation of religion and government under unprecedented attack, AU understands how important it is to engage Generation Z in the fight for the freedom to practice any religion we want or no religion at all, so long as we aren’t harming others.

AU’s annual essay contest is one way we encourage young people to reflect on why religious freedom and the separation of religion and government are important to them, their peers, their families, and their communities.

In past years, we’ve seen hundreds of submissions from across the country. Once again, we’re eager to hear young people’s ideas for what we can all do to ensure that religious freedom is used as a shield that protects, not a sword to harm others.

Are you – or do you know – a high school junior or senior who has ideas about the importance of separation of religion and government? We are accepting submissions to the 2020 Student Essay Contest now through April 19.

This year’s contest invites high schoolers to reflect on why the separation of religion and government is important to them, what they and others in their community have done to oppose threats to religious freedom, and what more can be done.

The top three essay writers will receive prizes of $500-$1,500 and have their essays published on AU’s website. The first-place prize winner will also be published in Church & State magazine.

“Today’s young people, shaped by the horrors of political polarization, will be the ones to create positive change,” last year’s third-prize winner, Isabella Reish, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., wrote. “We have a unique skill set for modern times: We can organize massive groups through social media, we can communicate with other young activists across the country, and we have the knowledge required to build the America that we want to live in.”

Alicia Johnson is Americans United’s national organizer and student network manager.