September 2020 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 and youth activists read the more than 300 essays that were submitted and selected the top three.

 First place is being awarded to Priya Aggarwal, who attended University High School of Science and Engineering in Bristol, Conn. She received a scholarship prize of $1,500. Olivia Bokesch, who attends A.C. Flora High School in Columbia, S.C., won second place and received $1,000. The third-place winner was Miles King of Milwaukee, who attended Wauwatosa East High School. He was awarded $500.

You can read Aggarwal’s winning entry here; Bokesch’s and King’s essays are available at www.au.org/essaycontest2020. We thank all of the students who entered.

Religion And Health Care: Why Your Medical Rights Should Not Depend On Someone Else's Faith

By Priya Aggarwal

knock on the door, asking permission from the patient to enter the room. Her head moves just slightly, nodding for me to come in. As I enter, I begin to feel a pit of uneasiness grow, originating from the government information I am mandated to tell her. I take one look at my patient before I begin to recite the material proposed by HB 1336. “It may be possible to reverse the effects of an abortion-inducing drug….” As I converse with the patient, I watch as she shrinks in her chair, desiring an escape from my words. As I continue to observe her, I hesitantly begin reciting the next set of information provided by the Abortion Control Act, that the procedure “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.” I look up as I talk, seeing the patient hold onto her bed, seeking comforting words and not the hostile and politically infused opinions I am providing her. I rush to finish the information. She again nods, saying she understands, and we begin the procedure.

The above scenario is one that is beginning to become a reality for many patients and health care providers around the country. As someone who is pursing the medical field, I appreciate a doctor’s ability to provide a safe space for patients. As a kid, I admired how doctors relied on logic and reason to inform and guide parents. As a teenager who sought guidance based on reason, the doctor’s office was seen as a sanctuary – a place where I can ask for advice that was based on facts compared to information based on personal and emotional bias. It is these experiences that motivated me to pursue a medical career, hoping that one day I will have the opportunity to create a safe place for my own patients.

Yet, some evangelists and politicians have threatened this dream by promoting reproductive health laws that reflect religious values. With recent acts such as the Abortion Control Act which is established in many states to varying degrees, many doctors today are forced to provide religious-based information. Actions such as the prior can significantly hurt the patient-doctor trust relationship and damage the safe-space atmosphere that many health care providers rely on to accurately treat their patients. For this reason, I am greatly invested in the separation of religion and government as I seek to maintain the safe space environment that is threatened by faith-based laws.

Going to a diverse STEM magnet school where students supported a myriad of belief systems including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Judaism and more, I know that religious freedom was an important value to many of the students. Thus, when Connecticut officials announced in early 2020 that they were working on a new vaccine bill that will remove religious exemptions as a way to excuse a child from a vaccine, our school became a public debate stage.

Some of us argued that a religious exemption from vaccines impacted the Connecticut community, as there has been recent outbreaks of mumps, putting people in significant danger. Others believed that if the religious exemption is removed, it may give the government an opportunity to infringe on other religious rights. To voice our opinions, many students wrote letters to the Connecticut Department of Health where some of us argued to separate religion and medicine, while others argued the opposite.

Another way I have personally been involved in the separation of religion and government is increasing voter turnout with a club called Dem­ocracy Matters. Many states, especially in the last few years, have passed laws that have a connection to religion — for instance, government funding private schools (often which are religious schools), new abortion laws that increase the bans and prohibitions against reproductive rights and lack of LGBTQ non-discrimination laws in 30 states. Thus, this year, we sought to bring politicians to young students to share political ideas for the future, introduce voting booths in clubs and provide transportation on election day. With these strategies, our community has worked to increase education and involvement in the political atmosphere, protecting the separation of religion and government. 

As for the future, there are many steps society can take to protect separation of religion and government. For one, there needs to be an increase in education on how certain areas of the USA are not as progressive as others. Having the privilege to live in Connecticut, a state that passes many progressive laws, many people are unaware of the lack of religious protection provided in other parts of country.

For instance, many of my colleagues are unaware that in some Pennsylvania counties, many Muslim inmates pay double the cost for religious scripture compared to Christian inmates. Thus, if education discussed disparities between states, students would begin to understand the need of political participation. Moreover with this type of education, it will benefit students who attend schools out of state, and they may be motivated to participate in prevalent issues.

The next step that can be taken is bringing politics to students. I believe politicians should converse with local students to understand what the future generation desires for change. Moreover, by providing the younger generation a voice, it may motivate students to participate in organizations that impact their political passion. With these steps, America can protect religious freedom and ensure a government that is separated from religious ideas.

As Americans, we have always had a diverse religious population. However, as a result, it has also been the source of discrimination and inequality in our country. For that reason it is crucial that we take steps to protect religious freedom and provide a future where individuals can choose to practice their belief freely and safely. By ensuring initiative today, we provide an equal and just future for tomorrow.