Editor’s Note: Aisha O’Neil won first place in the high school essay division of Americans United’s Student Contest. In this Q&A, she reflects on how her past experiences inspired her to take part.
Q. Your essay talks about some of the problems your family encountered in the public schools as Jews living in an area that was heavily Mormon. Tell us a little about what that culture is like. Did you have a sense of yourself as an outsider? If so, how did that make you feel?
O’Neil: I lived in Zion National Park until I was 9 years old. At such a young age, it is difficult to understand words like “outsider,” “minority,” or “discrimination.” I do not remember feeling like an outsider — just the sense that I was different somehow. When I was in kindergarten, for instance, I remember coloring a menorah while the rest of the class practiced Christmas carols. I remember the confusion of my third-grade classmates while my mother attempted to teach them how to play dreidel. And — on the other hand — I remember my conflict over whether to bow my head while a friend’s family said grace. Much of our community was accepting; they tolerated my family’s beliefs even without fully understanding them. Still, in a very real sense, we were outsiders: We were three of just eight Jews in Springdale, Utah.
Q. At Americans United, many of us are interested in finding new ways to reach young people and forge a new generation of activists. Can you share some thoughts on how we might do this?
O’Neil: In my opinion, the best way to increase youth involvement is to increase youth input; we want to be part of the decision-making process, not just the implementation of an idea. In practice, this can look like everything from a youth forum to a youth advisory board. It is always important to have a strong social media presence on everything — Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, etc. I also love the use of this essay contest to help spread the word!
Q. In your essay, you wrote, “I envision a world for my children in which God is never written beside the American flag.” Many Americans see the linkage of “god and country” as harmless “civil religion” rhetoric. What’s the danger?
O’Neil: By invoking “God” as a form of patriotism, we are normalizing the idea of a stereotypical American: a person who is white and Christian. This, in turn, transforms every minority group into “unAmerican” — systemically “lesser” than that American cliche. Thus, minority groups become alienated, and the violence against them becomes justified. If we as a country hope to fully recognize our ideal of religious freedom, we must separate church from state. Otherwise, we perpetuate the cycle of religious brutality that has existed since America’s founding.
Q. What are your plans for the future? Are you going to college, and what do you plan to study?
O’Neil: I will be applying for 11 colleges and universities this year (wish me luck!). Wherever I go, I hope to study political science with a focus on international relations. After earning my undergraduate degree, I would like to go to law school to become a human rights or environmental justice lawyer. I believe that no social change has occurred without accompanying legal action to institutionalize that reform. I hope to become a part of that institutionalization of social change.
Q. Given the recent assaults on church-state separation by the Supreme Court, are you optimistic about the future of religious freedom in America?
O’Neil: Yes; I have to be. Despite our country’s obvious failings, the United States has always strived towards a more equitable union. In the decades since our founding, countless activists have led us to a level of church-state separation that would be unfathomable to the nation’s founders. Today, America will only regress as far as we allow it.