Growing up as a Sikh-Ameri­can, Rimpal Bajwa under­stands that religious freedom in America is not where it should be for religious minorities. A self-described activist, Bajwa uses her writing as one of the ways to speak up for marginalized communities, and her essay on the Muslim ban made her Americans United’s third annual essay contest winner (you can read her essay here).

“I was constantly mistaken as a Muslim because the American educa­tion system failed to truly touch on the different religions of the world,” Bajwa told Church & State. “Because of this, I grew up in a religious com­mun­ity that was often subjected to mis­taken hate crimes. I can’t make the false equivalence of my pain to the pain many Muslims have to endure, but I can say that I know how it feels to be labeled as anti-American.”

This year’s student essay contest asked public high school juniors and seniors to identify the biggest threats to church-state separation and religi­ous freedom today. AU received ­hun­dreds of essay submissions from students nationwide. Scholarship prizes in­cluded $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second and $500 for third.

The nearly 600 students who en­tered the contest tackled religious freedom issues that were both local and national. Some wrote about religi­on in public schools and concerns about Education Secretary Betsy De­Vos’ push for school vouchers. Others wrote about attempts to use religion to discriminate against LGBTQ people and deny women access to birth con­trol. Some essays were about President Donald Trump’s pandering to the Reli­gi­ous Right and threats to repeal the Johnson Amendment. And many, like Bajwa, wrote about hosti­lity toward religious minorities.

While searching for scholarships, Bajwa said that she stumbled across AU’s essay contest and “was immed­iately captivated by the essay prompt. “I truly got interested by reading the powerful essay written by Lekha Sunder, who won the contest last year,” she said. “I realized that Amer­i­­cans United provided a pow­erful plat­form for the youth to ad­vocate for issues that are prom­inent in society, which moti­vated me to take ad­vantage of the opportunity to tell my story.

Bajwa’s winning essay convin­cingly examines how President Don­ald J. Trump’s three attempts at a Muslim ban pose the biggest threat to religious freedom over the past year.

“A powerful leader, openly endors­ing a policy in the media that is born of prejudice and fear in the pretense of national security. By pushing for such a ban, the president is attacking one of the fundamental rights of our country: religious freedom,” Bajwa wrote in her essay. “He 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.”

Bajwa’s personal experience shows how the Muslim ban impacts religious minorities and people of color be­cause racists equate being brown-skinned with being Muslim.

“I grew up in a society where a person with brown skin, turban and beard is considered a terrorist, regard­less of what they do,” she said. “Every time I turn on the news and hear about an attack, I pray that the attacker is not brown because, as a religious minority, I live in constant fear that the actions of a few indivi­duals will define my entire community.”

Essay Contest winner Rimpal Bajwa

(Photo: Essay contest winner Rimpal Bajwa.)

Rhetoric matters, Bajwa empha­sized, and the president’s Islamopho­bic rhetoric is reflected in his anti-Muslim policy.

“See, if the attackers are brown, they are terrorists; but if they’re white, they are mentally ill. Look to our very own president, who never proposes any legislative solutions when the killer is white but justifies his Muslim ban by stating it’s neces­sary for national security,” Bajwa said. “Through his Muslim ban, he is indirectly stating that American so­ciety only needs to be protected from brown people, especially Mus­lims, not white people. This rhetoric of fear and exclusion is a direct attack on religious freedom in Am­erica, which is why we must unite, regard­less of our religious affiliation, to condemn such poli­cies.” 

Bajwa further elaborated on this in her essay, analyzing that the term “‘terrorist’… has a potent force asso­ciated with it and is exclusively used to describe people of one reli­gion.” With her emphasis on depic­tions of terrorists and how we decide who is and isn’t a terrorist based on religion and skin color, Bajwa pow­erfully challenges her readers to recognize their bias, whether inten­tional or not, as a part of the solution to combatting religious discrimina­tion.  

“We may not think we discrimi­nate according to religion but some­times we subconsciously do,” Bajwa wrote. “The federal code de­fines ‘dom­estic terrorism’ in part as ‘activi­ties that appear intended to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction.’ By this definition, Steph­en Paddock, a white Christian man, was a terrorist but he was not labeled as a terrorist – he was called a ‘lone wolf.’”

Despite progress, there’s still a long way to go toward protecting church-state separation and religious freedom. This point is not lost on Bajwa, who acknowledged she has had her fair share of being targeted because of her religious beliefs.

“We’ve all heard about the Ameri­can melting pot, where different cultures and religions are celebrated and united. We are taught that Am­er­ica is built on certain freedoms that guarantee equality and celebrate diversity,” she said. “But we are not exposed to the harsh reality of the American melting pot that encour­ages that we all melt into a river of monotony. The America I know is much different from the America that is celebrated in the history textbooks.

“In the America I grew up in, religious freedom is only acceptable to certain religions deemed accept­able. In the America I grew up in, my religion makes me a target. I ulti­mately became an advocate for the separation of church and state and religious freedom because I grew up in a world where both were con­stantly under attack, which allowed others to undermine my faith, prov­ing to me how both are essential to individual liberty and equality.”

And like many young activists, Bajwa keeps her church-state separa­tion activism intersectional with other social justice issues such as LGBTQ rights.

“Just as freedoms shouldn’t be stripped from religions, religions shouldn’t strip others of their free­doms,” Bajwa said. “I think the youth can be active in combating such issues by using their voices to express their displeasure. There is power in a collective voice, but it does all start with one individual voice. Youth activists should join together to fight for causes they believe in, in an attempt to grab the attention of those that represent them.”

In doing this, Bajwa thinks that her fellow youth activists should hold politicians who represent them ac­countable for their influence on certain policies and remind their representatives that they hold the power to vote them out. Young people have a strong voice, regardless of how society labels them, Bajwa said.

“There seems to be a common misconception that the youth in this world and age are not worthy to stand up for issues they believe in, which is something I’ve tried to dispel at every opportunity because I know that the future will truly be changed at the hands of the youth who are willing to learn from the mistakes of the past,” she said.

That’s why Bajwa uses writing as one of her platforms “to voice opin­ions in the pursuit of change.”

“It’s a medium that helps those who are dissatisfied confront the world that they see as inadequate and issue a call to action,” Bajwa said. “Social change comes when people encounter challenging perspectives, whether it be online or in person, encouraging them to think in a different way. In a world dominated by the Internet, writing opens up a new gateway to become an agent of change.”

By telling stories, Bajwa hopes youth activists refute misconceptions and destroy stereotypes while simul­tan­eously inspiring those forgotten and ignored in our community to raise their voices.

Beyond the essay contest, Bajwa will continue building on her passion for civil rights. This fall, she will be attending the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she will be majoring in international politics. She aims to pursue her dream of be­coming a civil rights lawyer so that she “can help empower the buried voices in my local and global com­munity.

“Our voices are the most powerful tools that we have to change the world into a more accepting place for… future generations,” she said. “In a time like this, we cannot just idly sit by as the rights of margin­alized communities are trampled upon. We must find a way to fight back, whether… by marching down the streets of Washington or voicing our beliefs by writing.”