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 330 essays that were submitted and selected the top three.

First place is being awarded to Michael Hallinan of Lakewood High School in Colorado. He received a scholarship prize of $1,500. Sarah Geist of San Diego High School in Southern California won second place and received $1,000. The third-place winner was Oliver Petersen of School Without Walls High School in Wash­ington, D.C. He was awarded $500.

You can read Hallinan’s winning entry here; Geist’s and Petersen’s essays are available at au.org/essaycontest2021. We thank all the students who entered.

By Michael Hallinan

Religion is one of the few social concepts that can shape and define an individual’s life. It can determine how we choose to interact, the clothes we wear, the people we associate with, the beliefs we have and how we choose to per­ceive the world. Religion can be beautiful and instrumental, but it can also be harmful.

When the Indiana Religious Free­dom Restoration Act (RFRA) was in­troduced in 2015, the focus was never on maintaining freedom and beauty, but preserving discrimination and the ability to subjugate others to one’s own beliefs. Fortunately, activists are currently trying to purge the impuri­ties and injustice lurking in the RFRA through the Do No Harm Act (DNHA), which seeks to prevent pro­tections granted from the federal RFRA from being weaponized and manipulated to harm others.

As 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 for most people. They can be an outlet for creating a unique and often unbreakable life­long bond and bring more meaning to one’s own life. However, for some people like me, having kids bio­log­ically isn’t an option. I often day­dream about my future, hopefully being able to have a husband and eventually adopting some beautiful kids, fulfilling some of my lifelong goals. However, the reality of my dreams is appearing more like an unattainable fantasy as I hear about cases like Fulton v. City of Phila­del­phia.

Within Fulton v. City of Phila­del­phia, Megan Pazko, a future foster parent who was thoroughly prepared, applied to make her and her partner’s dreams of fostering happen. However, all of that was crushed when she was told that they (the foster care agency) “didn’t want to waste two hours of our time” as they didn’t work with LGBTQ people because of the agen­cy’s reli­gious beliefs, although the city had a paid contractual relationship with them. Fortunately, the agency Pazko worked with caved because of their contract being threatened; how­ever a similar group, Catholic Social Services (CSS), has not. Upon Phila­delphia’s termination of CSS’s con­tract because of their LGBT discrim­ination, the case has been brought to the Supreme Court, with the outcome still being undetermined as of May 2021. (Edi­tor’s Note: The court narrowly backed CSS in June.)

Existing as an LGBT individual is already challenging enough, but knowing that your government, a body who is supposed to protect and support your rights, lacks the back­bone to fully protect you, leaves you feeling vulnerable, uncertain and worst of all hopeless. People like me and Pazko aren’t the only ones left exposed though. This extends to all the United States’ population whether it’s in health care that cases like Bur­well v. Hobby Lobby try to eliminate or the evading of child labor laws.

The Do No Harm Act would bring about an immeasurable amount of safety, security and, above all, hope. People of different backgrounds, whether it’s me, Pazko, or any other individual would no longer have to fear for their ability to foster and adopt because of their difference in sexual orientation or their religious background. Additionally, the amount of children desperately needing lov­ing homes would decrease signifi­cantly with this obstacle being re­moved.

Furthermore, these protections extend far past adoption, preventing all facets of religious-oriented work­place discrimination and re­move the ability for the Religious Freedom Res­toration Act to be weaponized. It would rather function as a safeguard for religious believers from all back­grounds, as it was originally intended to. Without the ability to be weapon­ized, everyone, not just religious minorities or LGBT individuals, will have a tremendous step toward true freedom. This means no longer hav­ing to question if your birth control might be denied by your employer, no longer worrying that you might get turned away from a government-funded job because of who you are and the liberating idea that a religious belief may not be weaponized against you, but be shielded from it.

Outside of the individual protec­tions both emotional and physical, the Do No Harm act would beaut­i­fully enable and uphold the principle of separation of church and state. As an avid Christian myself, it’s ex­tremely challenging to straddle this wall of believing in my religion, whilst still maintaining my identity as a gay man, although many people who share my religion rarely share the idea that my identity is valid or acceptable. This paradox has created a huge emotional rift in myself, with parts of me feeling rejected and outcast, and the other parts of me wanting to engage and advocate for religious freedom, something I’m sure a plethora of Americans might experi­ence.

Some may argue the Do No Harm act usurps separation of church and state, or limits religion. However, the Do No Harm Act creates the perfect middle-ground for these feelings. It allows for the practice of religion to be sustained, supporting the advo­cacy side, whilst still enabling protec­tions for my identity and many other institutions and people like it, making this bill necessary for a more equal and free America. The RFRA was never meant to allow the religious beliefs of others to infringe or sub­jugate outsiders but sanctify personal expression. After all, one can believe whatever they want, but with the RFRA as it currently stands, it doesn’t just stop there. It allows those beliefs to extend and be enforced on others through the law, which encroaches on the idea of separation of church and state, further reinforcing the net positive impact of Do No Harm.     

This essay includes information from the Human Rights Campaign, SCOTUSblog and the Philadelphia Inquirer.                                           

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now