“We can influence national policy today,” writes Americans United’s 2017 essay contest winner Lekha Sunder in her first-place essay on Gloucester County School Board v. Gavin Grimm, the court case in which Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student from Virginia, challenged his school board for segregating him from his peers by forcing him to use a single-stall restroom in the nurse’s office, rather than the men’s restroom that aligns with his gender.

Her essay was among the 500 essay entries AU received this year from almost every state, which is more than double the number of entries from last year’s inaugural essay contest.

Lekha Sunder is the winner of Americans United's 2017 Student Essay Contest.

Participants in the contest, which included juniors and seniors from high schools across the United States, had the option of writing on a variety of church-state separation issues pertaining to education. Topics included religiously based curricula (such as creationism, climate change denial or abstinence-only sex education), mandatory or coerced school prayer and religiously based discrimination against LGBTQ students. The essays drew upon personal experiences, current events and U.S. history and included explanations of how each situation was a constitutional violation and how each student would (or in some cases did) solve the problem if it were to occur in their school. 

Sunder wrote her first-place essay on anti-transgender discrimination, using the Grimm case both as an example of that discrimination and as an example of how people, including students, could fight against it. AU gave Sunder, who this fall will be a senior in Houston, Texas, a $1,500 scholarship.

The second-place essay was written by Ethan Cantrell, and his essay earned him a $1,000 scholarship. Cantrell is a recent graduate of Wheeling Park High School in Wheeling, W.Va. This fall he begins studying at West Virginia University where he plans to major in anthropology. The third-place essay was written by Autumn Jenkins, and her essay earned her a $500 scholarship. Jenkins is a recent graduate of the Maryland Preparatory School in Lutherville, Md. She plans to study at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the fall and will major in either international relations or international business. 

Sunder, the first-place winner, believes in proactively defending the wall of separation. She concludes her essay with a call to such action: “By speaking out at rallies and meetings and voting out politicians that are too concerned with our bathroom business, we can increase the divide between church and state and decrease the divide between the LGBTQ community and the rest of the country.”

Sunder is the chair of Texas High School Democrats and the digital director for National High School Democrats. As she wrote in her essay, this past September she organized a presidential debate watch party cum voter registration drive for over 500 students.

AU Youth Outreach Coordinator Erin Hagen said that Sunder’s recognition of the importance of political action interwoven with her sharp analysis of the particulars of the Grimm case were part of why AU staff selected her essay. “[Sunder’s] point… that it’s also necessary to raise our voice in town halls, local elections, and school board meetings – is imperative, and one that we at Americans United believe in as well.” While AU is proud to represent our members wherever and whenever we can – whether that’s by appearing in court, filing friend-of-the-court briefs, or lobbying on Capitol Hill and in the states – it takes action from our supporters and allies to ensure that the wall of separation between church and state remains strong and tall.

Supporters of separation between church and state can, like Sunder says, organize, vote and speak wherever possible. As she writes, “People cite their freedom of religion as an excuse to impose these [discriminatory] policies. We can use our freedom of speech to fight back.”

Sunder says that the essay contest “is a great concept to get young people talking about these issues because I can’t just submit a brief to the Supreme Court and [have them] read it, so it’s good to have an outlet to voice about how I feel about these issues.”

Sunder is right about that, and it’s important that she and other activists across the country keep writing, voting and organizing for the separation of church and state. AU has been around for 70 years and will certainly keep reaching out to the next generation of activists.

Youth activists interested in learning more about how they can be advocates for religious freedom can visit AU’s Students for Church/State Separation project here, where information will be posted about the 2018 Student Essay Contest.