February 2023 Church & State Magazine - February 2023

A Passion For Pluralism: Meet Ashleen Girn, Winner Of AU’s 2022 Student Essay Contest.

  Dane Sherman

Young advocates of church-state separation exist out there in droves, interested in different fields and desiring different career paths but believing deeply in the power and importance of a distance between government and religion. An example of one of those passionate individuals is Ashleen Girn, the winner of this year’s AU Student Essay Contest.

Girn is a senior at Central High School in Springfield, Mo. Her essay depicts the multicultural and wide background in which she grew up and explores the different connections and community she has thrived in. 

Ashleen Girn

In her first-place essay, which appears in this issue of Church & State, Ashleen reflected on those lived experiences as a religious minority, a newly minted Midwesterner and public school advocate. Using those experiences to discuss the importance of cases like Kennedy v. Bremerton (school prayer at a public high school football game) and Carson v. Makin (requiring Maine to fund religious schooling).  

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Ashleen and hear more of her story. We discussed how she found Americans United, the contest and her life outside of school.

Originally from California, Ashleen moved to Missouri in her mid-teenage years and found herself confronted with new challenges and opportunities. Moving from a predominantly Sikh-American community to a Christian-majority community, she described how her “normals were really odd to people [in her new home], and they hadn’t heard of it before.”

These sorts of unique experiences deeply shaped her visions of a just and equitable world. Her childhood of movement and change showed her “different viewpoints, different cultures, different standards [that] have helped me develop, based on what I’ve seen, my core beliefs, values and identity.” 

As a child, Girn experienced the trepidation of the new religious enclaves she was thrust into that didn’t understand her own faith and whose faith she didn’t understand either.

One weekend, her new neighbors had invited her and her sisters to come to a church service with them. Originally vehemently against the idea of attending, her mother told her that, “just because we’re of a different religion doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything about other religions.” Girn now courageously attempts to live out a life of encountering individuals different from herself, finding herself visiting Hindu temples when she was in India, Baptist churches in Missouri, those who participate in a spirituality of activism in her school community and in other communities she finds herself enveloped in.

Ashleen believes that religious freedom at its best involves this kind of osmosis of interaction between cultures, traditions and practices different from our own and those who don’t practice a particular faith at all. However, she described a marked difference between seeking out those experiences of encounter and those encounters being coercively predetermined by state-run education, ordinances or religious interference in medical care.

She further described how these interactions can be really difficult at points in Missouri (and around the country) because of those coercive forces and from attempts by individuals to compare religions. This comparison at times made her hesitant to feel fully welcomed in some spaces, especially as she saw how “governments, a lot of times they’re influenced by [a] majority religion, a lot of laws are passed, due to there being a certain majority that have certain interests or version of morality in mind.”

Ashleen is thankful that she has been able to take advantage of a varied religious and theological education that had sharpened her understanding of others and the world, but she notes how that would not have been possible in environments where she was forced to pray before athletic events or learn scripture in history class.

When asked about which issues of church-state separation worried her most, she discussed the Bremerton case which she cited in her powerful essay. In her conversation with me, she stated, “It’s definitely a little bit worrying to me, I feel like even for the future, you know my little siblings are going to go to school …  are they going to deal with those situations? And I find it extremely worrying for communities, minority communities, especially like mine who will be impacted by the blurring and erasure of that line” between church and state in schools.

She encourages and deeply hopes for public schools that are free from coercion so her siblings, family and friends, no matter what state they live in, are able to learn and cultivate their own identity, ideas and values similar to how she was able to.

Beyond being a fierce believer in church-state separation, Girn has been actively involved on campus in a lot of varied activities from gardening club and photography club to serving as president of Health Occupations Students of America. Ashleen is passionate about understanding the beauty undergirding people and the natural world around her. 

Ashleen’s bright future appears currently to be taking her on a path toward the medical field, specifically a future in neurology or psychology and understanding the brain. She finds understanding people, their interactions and why they do things to be foundational questions she’s interested in diving into. This is part of what makes religion such an interesting topic for her in trying to understand people and why they do things.

Through researching for this contest and her experiences over the past several years, Ashleen told me the ways she hopes to stay engaged with church-state separation issues. She originally learned about the Americans United Student Essay Contest while searching for scholarships online; taking part in the contest helped to further spark a flame of her interests.

Ashleen shows through the way she lives her life and the person she chooses to be every day the richness that can happen through the radical act of encounter, the tireless effort to understand the world around her and deep love for the communities she’s a part of.

That richness can’t come from being forced or coerced to fit in, but through people having the ability to explore and learn more about those of varied backgrounds if they wish to and to explore their own without any comparison. We are excited for the electric and amazing future Ashleen has ahead and the continual effort she puts into cultivating communities around her.

Dane Sherman is a member of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship. A native of Seattle, Dane currently lives in South Bend, Ind., and is a junior at the University of Notre Dame.

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