“We desperately need a separation of church and state!”

“Religion should not be tied into government…”

“The Muslim Ban jeopardizes religious freedom in American.”

I was pleasantly surprised by the calls for church-state separation I heard while attending Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago this weekend. I had expected fruitful conversations about interfaith cooperation on college campuses but found that my peers brought their passion for social change and Americans United’s mission as well.

The Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI) is a yearly training for college students and staff interested in building religiously diverse communities on their campus. This year’s ILI was the largest in history with over 100 institutes of higher education represented by more than 400 attendees. I attended the conference with representatives of the Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, where I am a student.

Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core and author of two books, kicked off the conference with powerful words on why America needs interfaith cooperation. This country was not built to be dominated by one religion; it was built to be religiously pluralistic. Patel reminded attendees that citizens of all faiths (as well as those who don’t believe in religion at all) contribute to our nation: “If you love this country and contribute to it, then you belong to it and it belongs to you.” Therefore, these communities need to work together to push the nation forward.

During the conference, trainings were offered to students and staff. I participated in the storytelling training, which was geared toward first-time attendees. Telling stories about personal experiences is an effective way to build understanding between people of different religious identities and is an important tool for interfaith work. Over the course of the weekend, 25 students worked with trainers to build their own story to share with the group.

On the final day, we had a storytelling session. I found that similar themes popped up in the stories told by my fellow group members. The first was LGBTQ+ discrimination. Some attendees spoke of how they had been taught homophobia but discovered acceptance while others recounted their own experiences of being chastised in the name of religious dogma. During my internship at AU, I’ve learned through AU’s Protect Thy Neighbor project about the myriad ways some people are trying to use religion to justify discrimination. My own story recounted my personal experience with religious discrimination at my Oregon high school.

The second theme was discrimination against religious minorities. Hindu, Muslim and Wiccan attendees told their experiences of being verbally attacked because of their faith. These stories reflected many others I’ve heard at AU, especially in connection with President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban emboldening discrimination against Muslims, other religious minorities and people of color, In fact, two of AU’s student essay contest winners wrote about their experiences with discrimination. All of these stories drove home why AU’s work is essential.

The wall of separation protects all religious (and non-religious) identities in America. It prevents one religion from becoming government sponsored and gaining a legal right to discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals and religious minorities. While AU fights for legal protection, interfaith leaders are working to change the culture of intolerance in the United States.

College students care about church-state separation. The growing interfaith movement communicates that young people are reaching across religious and philosophical boundaries to fight discrimination together. As the Trump administration works to promote an officially “Christian America,” interfaith college students recognize the value of religious diversity and are willing to fight for it.

Young people interested in joining the movement to protect religious freedom should check out AU’s Students for Church/State Separation.