It is refreshing to know that the next generation of church-state separation activists are here and are already getting vocal about the issue. A prime example of a burgeoning activist is Michael Hallinan, the winner of this year’s AU Student Essay Contest.

In his first-place essay, which appears in this issue of Church & State, Michael discussed the importance of passing the Do No Harm Act, and why Supreme Court cases like Fulton v. City of Philadelphia showcase how it is becoming easier to use religious freedom to harm others.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Michael and hear more of his story. Aside from being perceptive about social justice issues, he’s accomplished in both academics and extracurriculars. Above all, he knows how seminal an issue church-state separation is for our generation.

Michael comes from Lakewood, Colo., where he’s lived his whole life. His mother came from Puerto Rico, and his father is from Lakewood, making him part of America’s growing Latino demographic. In high school, Michael did a variety of extracurricular activities, such as competitive gaming, but he was the most passionate about photography and mixed collage work, which he did throughout all four years of school.

Art, he said, was more than a hobby; it also served as a medium for expression and communication, one which he used to create a project describing the Hispanic American experience. One of his pieces, “Fragmentum” even won the congressional art competition in his district. (You can see the piece by visting: https://perl mutter.­house.gov/constituent-serv ­ices/­art-gallery.htm.)

Michael will be staying close to home and attending the Colorado School of Mines, a public research university in the small city of Golden. When I asked him about why he chose to pursue a STEM education rather than going to art school, he told me that it was ultimately STEM that fascinated him.

“Learning about PCR, CRISPR, and other genome editing was the most interesting thing possible,” he told me. These things are also “so important, given the state of the environment.”

The major Michael is pursuing, quantitative bioscience and engineering, is a brand-new one at the college. He’s thinking of using his degree to work in the biotechnology field, focusing on increasing sustainability. Michael is especially looking forward to growing and developing more during his time in college, where he’ll continue with his passion for photography and e-sports.

Michael’s relationship with church­­state separation started early in life, but he really began to learn about it when participating in the AU Student Essay Contest. He told me that he learned about separation of church and state in school but got to really grapple with the issue when researching and writing his essay.

“As someone who is Christian” he continued, “church-state separation is a controversial subject. It wasn’t always presented in the most positive light to me."

We also talked about Michael’s own relationship with religion. He was raised Christian, but being LGBTQ, this came with certain “paradoxes,” as he put it. Michael told me that “when you hear stuff from the church that is definitely not kind towards LGBT people, you face a lot of rejection. My first thought hearing this was, ‘Am I wrong for who I am?’ That was a really tough question to handle at 12 or 13.” These days, he finds his faith is more individual than communal.

In his essay, Michael discussed how the implications of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia had real world consequences for him and so many others. He wrote that “[A]s a gay teenager, one of the most worrying aspects of the RFRA to me surrounds the ability to adopt children. Children are one of the most beautiful parts of life. … I often daydream about my future, hopefully being able to have a husband and eventually adopting some beautiful kids. … However, the reality of my dreams is appearing more like an unattainable fantasy as I hear about cases like Fulton.” 

When we discussed the harm caused by religious extremists and their lawmaker allies, Michael added, “If we don’t make change, Fulton will be a reality for me and for other people like me. If the government is actively harming people, it’s not fulfilling its role.”

I asked Michael if he wanted to stay involved with church-state separation issues, and he didn’t hesitate to say yes. He told me, “A lot of activism is centered on the environment and socio-politics. A lot of things like church and state are pushed to the side even though fixing these issues is central to keeping climate change and social justice moving forward.”

Michael added that the best way to get young people involved in church-state separation work is to “connect the importance of separation of church and state to other topics. Without any prior knowledge, a lot of people think church-state separation ends with keeping the church out of politics. But there’s a huge confluence between church-state separation and other issues.”

After our formal interview, I chatted casually with Michael more about AU’s mission, politics in general and other issues we as Gen-Zers will encounter in our lives. He had incisive thoughts about life in our time and how a lot of the beliefs of the Catholic Church are still intrinsic to the Hispanic experience, which has important cultural and political implications.

Above all, he expressed an optimism for the future of church-state separation which I couldn’t help but come to share. It is only a good sign that students as thoughtful and winsome as Michael will be the vanguard for the next generation of social activism.

We at AU wish Michael all the best in college and beyond and are excited to see what great things he will do in the coming years.                              

Ethan Magistro is a philosophy major at Princeton University. He interned in Americans United’s Communications Department this summer.