September 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Editor’s Note: Americans United is pleased to announce the winners of its annual essay contest for high school students. A panel of judges consisting of AU staff members, interns and Gerardo Rivera, a member of AU’s Youth Advisory Council, read the essays and selected the top three.

First place is being awarded to Ranen Miao of Short Hills, N.J., who attended Millburn High School. He received a scholarship prize of $1,500. Dustin Daniels from Crossville, Tenn., who attends Stone Memorial High School, took second place and received $1,000. Third place was captured by Isabella Reish, from Murfreesboro, Tenn., who attends Central Magnet School; she was awarded $500.

Church & State is pleased to print Miao’s winning entry here. We thank all of the students who entered.

Collage of Ranen, Dustin & Isabella

(PHOTO: From left, Ranen Miao; Dustin Daniels; and Isabella Reish)


By Ranen Miao

We are living in troubling times. With the rise of authoritarianism and right-wing populism, minority groups are increasingly marginalized and scapegoated. From anti-Semitic tropes used in Cameroon to the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, religious freedom is becoming increasingly important.

However, in the United States, our freedom is being weaponized to justify discriminatory and harmful policies. My generation must change our understanding of religious freedom, mobilize to enact change and show up to vote for inclusive policies which can both uphold religious freedom while also defending equality. Fundamentally, my generation must redefine what religious freedom truly is.

The rise of the Religious Right has led to a conservative monopolization of religion and morality, but there are followers of faith on both sides of the political spectrum. As the Pew Research Center reports in their Religious Landscape Study, a majority of Buddhists, Jews, black Protestants and Muslims identify as Democrats. However, faith is most frequently politicized and cited by the right.

The Manhattan Declaration, published in 2009, was a manifesto issued by Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Christian leaders denouncing abortion and gay marriage. Those same principles were later ingrained in the 2016 Platform of the Republican National Committee, which refused to “fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage,” called “traditional marriage [...] the foundation for a free society” and swore to defend “non-profit tax status” for institutions which discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In essence, it reaffirmed the misinterpretation of religious freedom as a license to discriminate, however and whenever people want.

A reclamation of the term religious freedom is necessary to combat the rise in discrimination and radicalism. Religious freedom represents the right to pray, believe and live freely by any religion or none at all. However, it does not legalize discrimination. As Tisa Wenger, an associate professor of American religious history at the Yale Divinity School, wrote for The Washington Post in 2017, “In battles over slavery and racial segregation, religion and scripture were often cited as justification for maintaining inequality.”

As time went on, the perception that religious freedom justified heinous institutions of oppression went away. Modern-day arguments for discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community are very similar: As Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote in April 23, 2015, religious opposition to the Obergefell v. Hodges 2015 Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage paralleled “similar resorts to religion fueled legal opposition to interracial marriage.” My generation must be cognizant of the history of oppression upheld under the guise of “religious freedom” and reject modern-day calls for discrimination.    

Equally as important is mobilization. 2016 was the second year in a row when over 100 pieces of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people were introduced in state legislatures across America. From the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2014 to North Carolina’s infamous HB2, banning transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, more and more states are trying to codify discriminatory policies under the guise of religious freedom. However, in dozens more legislative and judicial battles, it was grassroots efforts that fought against passage of similar legislation.   

In some instances, it’s students like me protesting and lobbying our legislators. From calling my congresspeople on Capitol Hill to spreading awareness online and within my school, every small action contributes to a cycle of awareness and activism. In other cases, it’s large groups advocating against regressive policies: In a letter published on the Human Rights Watch website, child welfare organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, National Education Association, and National Association for School Psychologists rejected anti-LGBTQ+ legislation being introduced in state legislatures.

Perhaps most effective is participating in and calling for boycotts. On March 26, 2015, then-Governor Mike Pence of Indiana signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allowed individuals to discriminate on the basis of religious preference. As a result, he faced immense backlash from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Subaru and the Disciples of Christ, amongst dozens of other religious and business groups. One week later, on April 2, Pence amended the RFRA, including stipulations to protect LGBTQ+ people. As Shane Stahl wrote for Freedom for All Americans, the event is “remembered as one of the earliest ignitions of outrage about anti-LGBTQ discrimination and ‘license to discriminate’ legislation.” 

Finally, and most importantly, my generation must participate in our democracy. As the United States Elections Project reports, 18-29-year-olds have the lowest rates of voter turnout in the nation. On Election Day, we must show up to the ballot box to combat bigotry and discrimination to be heard.

Young people need to run for office, even if we don’t win. As Politico noted in May of 2018, millennials won Democratic primaries in 20 competitive districts during the 2018 midterms, helping to bridge generational divides. The wave of young, inspired candidates has also brought in a wave of new legislators in recent elections such as U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the first Muslim congresswomen in American history; Jared Polis of Colorado, the first openly gay governor; and state Rep. Danica Roem, the first transgender woman elected in Virginia who unseated a transphobic 13-term incumbent. These Americans are the face of change: people who will be a voice for marginalized groups in the halls of power, and who will be at the forefront of reshaping how we view religious freedom and equality.  

I am a gay, Asian man who follows politics because my life and my identity are politicized. I care about these laws and these issues because I know that in America, there are people like me who feel scared, unloved, and unheard. In my heart, I also know that my generation is the key to change. Today, young voices matter more than ever: together, with shared conviction and faith, we can create an inclusive future that defends both religious freedom and social justice.