Growing up as a Sikh-American, Rimpal Bajwa understands that religious freedom in America is not where it should be for religious minorities. A self-described activist, Bajwa uses her writing as one of the ways to speak up for marginalized communities, and her essay on the Muslim ban made her Americans United's third annual essay contest winner.
"I was constantly mistaken as a Muslim because the American education system failed to truly touch on the different religions of the world," Bajwa told Church & State. "Because of this, I grew up in a religious community that was often subjected to mistaken hate crimes. I can't make the false equivalence of my pain to the pain many Muslims have to endure, but I can say that I know how it feels to be labeled as anti-American."
This year's student essay contest asked public high school juniors and seniors to identify the biggest threats to church-state separation and religious freedom today. AU received hundreds of essay submissions from students nationwide. Scholarship prizes included $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second and $500 for third.
The nearly 600 students who entered the contest tackled religious freedom issues that were both local and national. Some wrote about religion in public schools and concerns about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' push for school vouchers. Others wrote about attempts to use religion to discriminate against LGBTQ people and deny women access to birth control. Some essays were about President Donald Trump's pandering to the Religious Right and threats to repeal the Johnson Amendment. And many, like Bajwa, wrote about hostility toward religious minorities.
While searching for scholarships, Bajwa said that she stumbled across AU's essay contest and "was immediately captivated by the essay prompt.
"I truly got interested by reading the powerful essay written by Lekha Sunder, who won the contest last year," she said. "I realized that Americans United provided a powerful platform for the youth to advocate for issues that are prominent in society, which motivated me to take advantage of the opportunity to tell my story.
Bajwa's winning essay convincingly examines how President Donald J. Trump's three attempts at a Muslim ban pose the biggest threat to religious freedom over the past year.
"A powerful leader, openly endorsing a policy in the media that is born of prejudice and fear in the pretense of national security. By pushing for such a ban, the president is...