“The Muslim ban is, in my opinion, the greatest threat to church-state separation not just in the past year but in my entire lifetime,” Rimpal Bajwa writes in her first-place winning essay titled “A Rising Tide Of Religious Discrimination In America Threatens To Wash Away America’s Tradition Of Tolerance.”

Bajwa is a graduate of Puyallup High School in her hometown of Puyallup, Wash. Her essay highlighting the dangers of Islamophobia in American government and culture took first place in Americans United’s annual essay contest. Nearly 600 essays by high school juniors and seniors were submitted to AU. Each essay was inspired by the prompt, “What do you think has been the greatest threat to church-state separation in the past year and what have those in your community done to oppose it?”

A $1,500 scholarship was awarded to Bajwa for her excellent work. Anastasia Hendricks, a senior from Albuquerque, N.M., who wrote about religion in public schools, earned second-place and a $1,000 scholarship. Third place went to Ariel Hall, a senior from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who also wrote about the Muslim ban and received $500. All three essays can be read here.

In her essay, Bajwa addressed President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in June, and the harmful stereotypes that continue to plague the American-Muslim community. “People often see Islam as a religion of violence, when it is truly a religion of peace. They see Muslim religious symbols, such as the hijab, as oppression, when it really represents the decency and modesty,” she writes.

These misunderstandings have profound impacts on Muslim communities in the United States. Bajwa explains that after 9/11, her Sikh-American parents were often mistaken for Muslims and verbally attacked. She also points out that the term “terrorist” is reserved for those who practice Islam. When Stephen Paddock, a white Christian man, committed a heinous crime that fit the definition of terrorism, he was not labeled “a terrorist” by the media or authorities, but was rather called “a lone wolf.”

“According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims for 2016 shows a second straight year of increases,” Bajwa wrote. “In the last two years, the number of reported hate crimes has risen by nearly 12 percent.”

Trump’s Muslim ban is endorsing these stereotypes, according to Bajwa. She remarks, “A powerful leader is openly endorsing a policy in the media that is born of prejudice and fear in the pretense of national security.”

And that policy has implications for church/state separation. Bajwa continues, “He [Trump] is setting a dangerous precedent that discrimination on the sole basis of religion is acceptable, a precedent that could destabilize American society in the future.”

What can we do to combat the growing Islamophobia in America? Bajwa suggests that we “empower Muslim voices to help them dispel rumors about their faith and provide factual information about their religion” and “stop labeling only Muslims as terrorists.” Learning to appreciate and respect the religions of others will help make America accepting again, she writes. Bajwa does her part by using her Speech & Debate competitions as a platform to discuss conformity and the pressure immigrants face to assimilate. She performed her oratory piece on the topic at the National Individual Events Tournament of Champions in Denver.

Bajwa will be taking her activism to Washington, D.C., this coming fall where she will attend the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Bajwa will be majoring in international politics and plans to become a civil rights lawyer. Her essay and a profile about her was published in the July-August edition of AU’s Church & State magazine.

Those interested in learning more about AU’s youth activism can visit our Students for Church/State Separation site here.

(Pictured above: Essay contest winner Rimpal Bajwa. Pictured below: Bajwa, second place winner Anastasia Hendricks and third place winner Ariel Hall.

The three winners of the essay contest