Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” blog is featuring the essays and videos submitted by the winners of Americans United’s 2023 AU Student Contest, which asked high school and college students to reflect on their vision for church-state separation. Submissions have been edited lightly and do not necessarily reflect the views of Americans United.
By Emerson Rock of Shawnee, Kansas
I anxiously sit inside a Sprinter van loaded with six other kids my age, and four adults. We are going on a mission trip in the mountains of Tennessee. As a young gay woman, I was very skeptical of what the trip might entail. Homosexuality and religion tended not to blend very well. Despite that, my best friend dragged me onto the bus, so there was no escaping now.
During the first part of our long drive, we played games and got to know each other. My nerves calmed and I grew optimistic about the week ahead of me. However, that would change very fast when the two boys in front of me began talking about their personal beliefs. My heart dropped as I heard one of them say, “I believe being gay is a sin” and the other followed with, “I agree, I think they probably go to hell.”
In the moments after that was said I questioned every part of my life: Why had I agreed to go on this trip? Why didn’t I just stay home like I initially wanted to do? Luckily at this same time, we were pulling up to the cabin we would be living in for the next week. I scrambled to get out of the van and away from the rest of the group. I found myself sobbing in the pitch black somewhere in the Tennessee mountains, with no connection to my life back home.
The next few days were some of the most emotionally draining days I have ever experienced. I felt vulnerable in everything I was doing, I was essentially put back into the closet out of fear. I was disappointed in myself for not standing up for myself and my community, and for not speaking up.
On the morning of our last day, during my two-hour journaling time, I wrote about all it took for me to admit my sexuality to myself and others. About all the nights I cried myself to sleep praying that I would wake up and no longer be gay. It was a battle to love myself again after coming out. After I ran out of thoughts I tore what I wrote out of my notebook and headed back to the cabin. Before heading to my room, I slipped the torn pages into the boy from the first day’s bag.
I had no idea the gravity of what I had just done. Within a few hours the boy approached me and asked me to join him on a walk, and to my surprise I accepted his offer. We walked for what felt like hours talking about our backgrounds and this boy’s background was astonishing to me. He had grown up in private Catholic schools that shielded him from subjects like homosexuality. I was the first gay person he had ever met, and hearing my coming out story weighed on him. He even asked me to help educate him on the LGBTQ+ community.
His admission made me wonder how many queer students at his school remained in the closet for fear of rejection. I was grateful that my parents had chosen public schools for me where religion was not taught or used to make school policy. My fellow camper’s school had created a false reality where whole parts of his community did not exist. Further, our conversation proved to me that keeping church and state separate is a way to promote independent thinking and reduce harm from homophobic doctrine.
In summary, strong church-state separation in schools protects students from having to face the pain of experiences like the one I faced. On that mission trip religion was practiced in an extremely harmful way, a way that could have been seriously dangerous. My vision for church-state separation is a world where people are free to practice their beliefs as long as they are not harmful to other people. A world that protects minority religions and minorities overall. A world where the explicit practice and teaching of religion is conducted at home and not at federally funded schools.
Through my experience at the camp led by a religious school, I saw very clearly that schools (like mine) where religion is kept separate create a more inclusive and intellectually curious environment. Unfortunately, church-state separation is currently under attack via anti-trans and anti-gay legislation, as well as book bans. It is up to all of us to agitate for changes that refocus society toward the free-thinking roots of this country’s founding, even if those beliefs are different from what is believed as “conventional.”