FFRF awarded $200 to each of the honorable mention winners. Their essays are excerpted here.
Downfall of equal rights
By Peter Brown
The past few decades have seen a dramatic rise in American right-wing power, with millions of conservatives advocating for religious freedom. Their Judeo-Christian viewpoint is not inclusive of all Americans, and instead is used to justify widespread discrimination.
The Hobby Lobby ruling, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and state-level discrimination laws represent the greatest modern-day danger to American individuals and the U.S. Constitution.
The first dangers of redefined religious freedom are to individuals, especially women. With an overwhelming majority of political lawmakers and justices being male, it is clear that our system of government does not have the appropriate perspective to protect the health of women. Instead, the Religious Right uses state law and judicial opinions to limit women's access to contraception and abortion.
Religion has been a justification for discrimination throughout history, but recent events show the endangered status of many Americans' civil rights. Individuals face discrimination, diminished resources, and systemic inequity when these practices are allowed to continue. Both government intervention and active citizens can protect civil liberties and the Constitution.
Peter, 27, from Easton, Mass., attends Columbia Business School. He graduated from Boston College in 2012 with a degree in history. He joined Teach For America in 2012 in Las Vegas as a corps member, then worked for the group in a finance and development role. Peter eventually would like to run a large urban school district.
By Jeffrey C. Fielder
Religious liberty is often misunderstood to give agency to abusively impose faith on those living outside of it. Unfortunately, this is what many Hoosiers intended to do when in 2015, then-Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law in Indiana. The bill sparked outrage throughout the state and permanently tarnished the reputation of the Hoosier State.
Shortly after the bill was signed, a man simply referring to himself as Ryan called the "Kyle and Rachel" radio show to proclaim his support as a Christian. He did not want LGBTQ individuals coming into his restaurant and making his customers feel "uncomfortable." The man later went on to describe how he has discriminated against gay people in the past, pretending there were issues in the kitchen so that he could prevent serving them.
As the call continued, the man referred to homosexuality as "just not right" and backed up his assertions with his beliefs as a Christian and his ability to do as he pleases with his own restaurant. Unsurprisingly, Ryan did not reveal the name of his establishment for fear of boycotts. This instance clearly displays how the RFRA emboldened people like Ryan and supported their worldview that religiously motivated discrimination is acceptable.
From an even larger perspective, the bill's passing is a lens through which one can see many believe religious liberty justifies discrimination. Both Ryan and those who agreed with him across the state displayed a clear misunderstanding of what religious liberty truly is. The idea that denial of service to certain individuals based on religion is acceptable is both blatantly erroneous and undermines what it means to live in a free society.
Jeffrey, 24, from Elkhart, Ind., attends The Creative Circus and plans to graduate with a certificate in art direction. He graduated from Indiana University in 2016 with a degree in journalism. During his high school and undergraduate years, Jeffrey helped bring art programs to underprivileged schools and helped children develop early literacy skills. He hopes to become an art director at an advertising agency.
I am at liberty to take your liberty
By Sean Hansen
There is no logical or justifiable reason for religious groups to impose their edicts on those who don't want to follow their religion, as so doing violates their freedoms.
If an employee refuses for religious reasons to do a job for which he/she was hired, he/she must be fired. The employer cannot be expected to pay the employee for not doing his/her job.
The consequence for catering to this person's religious law would mean that the other nonbelieving workers must work harder for the believer's sake, likely without extra compensation. In addition, what's to prevent other employees from claiming that they, too, are of the same faith and demand the same deal?
Why can't it be ordered to punish someone who commits an infraction against their religion? So long as it is a "sincerely held religious belief" that apostates, critics and sinners must be killed, and their argument is that their holy text commands it, then it would be a violation of their "religious liberty" to stop them.
The truth behind religious liberty is that we are free to believe what we choose to believe, but we cannot force others to do so or capitulate to the demands of said religion. That is a violation of all other freedoms. Religious followers demand subjugation, indoctrination and enslavement of everyone outside of their religion, while crying that resisting their dictatorial oppression is a violation of their "religious liberty." Their version of religious liberty is a weapon to take away all other liberties from everyone else.
Sean, 26, from Brighton, Mich., is an undergraduate at Kettering University, seeking a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering. He enjoys reading, learning physics and working at his engineering internship.
Religious freedom threatened across America
By Sarah Henry
Our understanding of religious liberty, a concept developed by the Founding Fathers and carried through American legal and judicial systems, may soon go the way of the black rhinoceros.
It is clear that the Trump administration favors destroying the wall between church and state.
President Trump does not just threaten the relationship between the church and the state; he threatens the very concept of religious freedom, the soul of the First Amendment.
Trump cares not about the religious freedom of the Sioux population, as they work tirelessly to protect sacred lands from the Dakota Access pipeline.
Trump cares not about the religious freedom of Muslims traveling to America, instead putting massive immigration bans on groups of people determined by the predominant religion of their home country.
Trump cares not about the religious freedom of women who choose from a bevy of contraceptive and birth control options, putting into place a worldwide gag order against nongovernmental organizations that provide women with honest medical advice.
Trump cares not about the religious freedom of sanctuary congregations, houses of worship across America that have pledged to protect all those who come to their doors.
Trump cares about religious freedom as it extends to white, Christian men, and that is not religious freedom at all.
Sarah, 21, from Georgetown, Ind., attends American University, and seeks a master's degree in public administration. She graduated summa cum laude from Lynn University in 2016 with majors in political science and photography.
Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to discriminate
By Alyssa Pires
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act places nebulous religious beliefs above reason and scientific evidence, and effectively turns existing federal and state anti-discrimination laws on their heads, by redefining religious freedom as "freedom from discrimination" to "freedom to discriminate."
And the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby majority opinion is an unmitigated disaster from a scientific and medical perspective. A person or corporation's sincerely held religious beliefs outweigh what the scientific or medical evidence says.
The potential for discrimination is not just limited to LGBTQ individuals, although as a visible minority group, they face more hostility than most. Under this interpretation of religious freedom, one could imagine using religious objections as a license to discriminate against anyone. Such thinking would effectively nullify existing civil rights laws protecting discrimination by way of race, gender, sex, marital status, citizenship status, and even other religions.
A shop owner could religiously object to hiring African-Americans based upon a belief that they are descendants of the biblical figure Cain, who was cursed with a mark that some have presumed to be dark skin. An Orthodox Jewish businessman could religiously object to having women in the office when they are menstruating, as Orthodox Jews believe that women are ritually impure during menses. A Muslim hotel owner could refuse lodging to an unmarried couple on the basis that unmarried men and women cohabitating is immoral. The list goes on.
No sincerely held religious belief should be used as the basis to undermine reputable scientific evidence used in the courts, or as a method to circumvent hard-earned protections for women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.
Alyssa, 26, of Tucson, Ariz., attends the University of Arizona as a master's student in animal and biomedical industries. She graduated from Arizona in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. She works at a pet hospital, where she helps triage emergencies and ensures the smooth flow of patients through the clinic. Alyssa is applying to a doctorate of veterinary program after her master's program is completed. She hopes to someday work at a zoo as an exotic animal practitioner.
Human rights before religious liberties
By Megan Oslund
When I was 8 years old, my 91-year-old great-grandmother told me, "Child, you must learn that your rights end where mine begin."
Now, as an adult existing in a time where there is an ever-deepening divide between the Liberal Left and the Religious Right, I find myself joining the rest of the country in wondering where exactly that invisible line in the sand is drawn. As church pews empty and conservative Christianity proceeds to age out of relevance along with its parishioners, it's un-surprising that the Religious Right is circling the wagons and hunkering down against the onslaught of cultural change rising up from every side. It's easy to confuse equality with persecution when you've held privileged status as "the norm" for so long.
In a free democracy, we must accept that our status as humans outweighs our status as Christians or Buddhists or atheists. This is where the Hobby Lobby decision and the redefined RFRA have trampled all over the aforementioned line.
In a capitalist system, for-profit businesses are intimately entwined with the public and the fabric of society. By giving corporations that provide services to the public the ability to pick and choose how to dispense those services and to whom — based on religious liberties formerly reserved for individuals and nonprofit institutions — we set up an enormous power imbalance against groups that are already marginalized.
It's time that we as citizens rise up and elect leaders who believe that an individual's unalienable rights come before religious liberty.
Megan, 25, from El Paso, Texas, attends St. Catherine University in Minneapolis as an undergraduate student. She is seeking an associate's degree in occupational therapy assisting. She was one of only four female operators at an oil refinery in west Texas. She has visited nine countries on five continents while on humanitarian missions. She became interested in occupational therapy when her son, who was born with a chronic liver disease, began needing intervention to improve basic motor functioning skills.
American judicial theocracy
By Jake Pierog
America finds itself very overdue for a reckoning with the increasingly overwhelming influence of evangelism in our political, social and cultural systems.
As a gay man, what expectation of equal protection under the law can I reasonably have when, for example, hospitals deny me the right to visit my spouse, as was common practice before President Obama and is very likely to become common again?
Do I lose my 14th Amendment rights because a medical emergency happens in close proximity to a Catholic hospital whose directors and doctors happen to disapprove of my union?
Consider also the way an atheist, or even a member of a religious minority, would feel while entering the court of a judge as brazenly pro-Establishment as the infamous Roy Moore, who lost his judgeship over his adamant refusal to remove a Ten Commandments statue.
What of apartment complexes owned by deeply religious persons who claim a right to exclude gay or trans tenants, or government officials who refuse to certify or recognize the marriage to which I am constitutionally entitled, much in the same way that Kim Davis did?
As a diverse nation full of homosexual, trans, atheist, agnostic and deeply religious persons, we must come to terms with the fact that our pluralistic society is, at its core, incompatible with the demands of fundamentalist religions that seek not only to impose a personal code of behavior, but a mandatory societal one, the free will of others be damned.
Jake, 27, of Binghamton, N.Y., is a political science major at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. While a student at Broome Community College, he helped form the Binghamton University Guide for Racial Justice Deliberation. Jake earned the BCC Economics Scholarship. He aspires to be involved in state-level politics.