Today Americans United is launching its 2018 Student Essay Contest!

Essay 2018

Houston high school student and church-state advocate Lekha Sunder, who was the winner of Americans United’s 2017 Student Essay Contest, told AU’s Church & State magazine that America’s youth have an important role to play in standing up for peers who face discrimination due to their religious beliefs or the religious beliefs of others. As an Indian-American who grew up in the Hindu faith but now is an atheist, Lekha knows this well.

“I understand what it is like to deviate from religious norms and customs. The separation of church and state is a fundamental principle that has helped, and will help, protect the rights of marginalized people,” she said. “I think it’s the responsibility of people like myself … to reach out to more marginalized or disenfranchised communities and make sure that they’re a part of the conversation.”

Lekha has done that in numerous ways: by advocating for progressive causes on a local, state and national level, by talking about her life and family in a publicly available TED talk – and by participating in AU’s essay contest to explain the religious basis for the discrimination faced by Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen whose is still battling his former Virginia high school that refused to allow him to use restrooms that align with his gender identity.

Lekha used her essay to urge young people to speak out and take action to protect church-state separation. High school juniors and seniors can do just that by participating in Americans United’s 2018 Student Essay Contest, which opened for submissions today.

This year, we’re asking students to consider the evolving threats to church-state separation, which include:

  • Discrimination against the LGBTQ community, women and religious minorities in the name of religion. This type of discrimination was on prominent display last month when the Supreme Court heard arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a baker claims his religious beliefs about marriage equality gave him the right to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
  • Attempts to change the tax code so politicians can pressure nonprofits — including houses of worship — for endorsements. President Donald Trump has vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment that protects nonprofits from being turned into the tools of political campaigns, and Republicans in Congress are trying to follow through on his threat.
  • Efforts to ban people from entering the country because of their religion, namely Trump’s Muslim ban.

For the essay contest, we’re asking students what they think has been the greatest threat to church-state separation in the past year, whether it’s one of the issues above or something else. We’d like them to consider what folks in their own communities have done to oppose the threat they identified, what barriers are preventing people from working on the issue and what more can be done.

Students can reference current events, U.S. history, primary sources, personal experiences and information from and our Protect Thy Neighbor campaign website.

The essays should be 750 to 1,200 words and be well written and well researched. The deadline for submissions is April 15, 2018. The first-place winner will receive a $1,500 prize; $1,000 will go to the second-place winner, and $500 to third place. The winning essay will be reprinted in Church & State.

About 500 students from nearly every state in the nation participated in last year’s essay contest; we hope to top that number this year to engage as many young people as possible in thoughtful consideration of the state of religious freedom in America and the threats to church-state separation.

More information about the essay contest is available at Students for Church/State Separation.

“The essay contest is very hopeful,” AU Youth Outreach Coordinator Erin Hagen told Church & State. “At a time when many of the issues AU works on are under attack by the current administration, I’m glad to know there is a generation coming along that can so articulately express the importance of keeping church and state separate.”

“[O]n a daily basis we can use our voice,” Lekha wrote last year. “People cite their freedom of religion as an excuse to impose (discriminatory) policies. We can use our freedom of speech to fight back.”

We hope America’s youth will do just that.

P.S. – If you’d like to share this essay contest with your community, you can print flyers here.