Essay Excellence

Americans United's Second Annual Essay Contest Winner Talks Student Activism And The Importance Of Church-State Separation

Like many young activists, Am­ericans United’s second annual essay contest winner Lekha Sunder’s activism is intersectional. She is passionate about the environment, voting rights, LGBTQ rights and, of course, church-state separation and religious freedom.

“The reason I’m uniquely passionate about the separation of church and state is because I’m atheist, and I have always felt slightly uncomfortable when religion is involved in matters relating to the public,” Sunder, a junior at Lamar High School in Houston, told Church & State.

Though noting she was familiar with AU because of friends who support the organization, Sunder’s personal experience made her realize the importance of AU’s mission prior to submitting her essay.

“As an Indian-American student that was formally Hindu but is now atheist, I understand what it is like to deviate from religious norms and customs,” she said. “The separation of church and state is a fundamental principle that has helped, and will help, protect the rights of marginalized people.”

This year’s student essay contest asked high school juniors and seniors to write about church-state separation violations that frequently occur in public schools. AU received 500 essay submissions from almost all 50 states. Scholarship prizes included $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second and $500 for third.

“The essay contest is very hopeful,” AU Field Associate Erin Hagen told Church & State. “At a time when many of the issues AU works on are under attack by the current administration, I’m glad to know there is a generation coming along that can so articulately express the importance of keeping church and state separate in public schools.”

Sunder’s first-prize-winning essay, “Grimm Grievances,” is about Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen fighting to ensure that trans students nationwide can use public restrooms that align with their gender identity. (The essay is reprinted on page 12.)

Grimm’s case, Gloucester County School Board v. Gavin Grimm, was the first transgender rights case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and arguments were set for March, but when the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era guidance aimed at protecting transgender students from discrimination in February, the Supreme Court ordered the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear the case.

In her essay, Sunder examines how religion was used as a weapon to discriminate against transgender public school students through Grimm’s court battles. Sunder chose to write about this topic, she said, because many of the arguments against Grimm’s right to use the restroom of his choice were religiously motivated, and she believes that discrimination in the name of religion has no place in a public school setting.

“I’ve been reading about the case, and I was really fascinated with the way that the case was, I guess, inadvertently related to religion – even though you see in the media all about people making an argument about privacy and safety, when there’s clearly links to religion that are being ignored,” Sunder remarked.

Her essay about the role of religious discrimination in the case is spot on. In AU’s amicus briefs in support of Grimm submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court and then the 4th Circuit, our organization argued that religiously motivated discrimination is unconstitutional and hurts all those victimized by it, including transgender students, and that basic civil rights such as being able to use a public restroom cannot be revoked by some community members’ religious beliefs.

Church-state separation and transgender rights, Sunder said, intertwine because of the continuing threat of those who invoke their religion as an excuse to discriminate against the transgender community.

“When religious expression threatens the learning environment, influences public policy, and sways court decisions, it’s an unwarranted breach,” Sunder wrote in her essay.

Alongside fighting religiously motivated discrimination through legal options, Sunder argues that part of the solution must be battling for social justice through activism.

“As courts and schools increasingly follow the voice of religious groups, what can be done to raise our voice? Participating in town halls, school board meetings and local elections are all ways to minimize religious influence and protect transgender lives,” Sunder wrote. “Gavin Grimm chose the legal system to fight for his rights, but on a daily basis we can use our voice. People cite their freedom of religion as an excuse to impose these policies. We can use our freedom of speech to fight back.” 

Americans United staff members who judged the essay contest were impressed with Sunder’s writing style, Hagen said. But they also liked the way she seamlessly incorporated an overview of the legal consequences of the Grimm case with the tangible inequalities that transgender students regularly face in school. 

“Because she approached this subject on multiple levels, the solution she posited was multifaceted,” Hagen said. “Her point that Gavin Grimm’s choice to fight the injustice he faced through the legal system – but that it’s also necessary to raise our voice in town halls, local elections, and school board meetings – is imperative, and one that we at Americans United believe in as well.”

Sunder illustrates her passion for activism and voicing opinions through her personal life, as she has quite the decorated résumé. As a member of her school’s debate team, she researches and debates issues pertaining to domestic policy, environmental policy, U.S. foreign policy and more.

In fact, her participation in debate is what led her to research and learn more about Grimm’s case.

In 2014, Sunder showcased her talents on TEDxYouth. A branch of the popular TED Talks, the platform allows speakers to share ideas at local events nationwide that are designed for young people. In her speech, titled “Don’t Worry Away,” the teen used a personal narrative to convey the meaning and bonds of family and close relationships. (The talk can be seen on YouTube.)

When she’s not debating or giving speeches, Sunder performs in musical theater and is a member of the National Honor Society. She also chairs Texas High School Democrats of America, and is the digital director for National High School Democrats. Her work with High School Democrats  involves her getting young students involved with progressive politics, increasing voter registration and get­ting people active and responsive to pressing political situations.

Youth activists need to have diverse representation because many marginalized groups, Sunder argues, often don’t get as much opportunity to have a voice in progressive campaigns and organizations despite their level of interest. 

“I think it’s the responsibility of people like myself that have the privilege to be a part of these organizations to reach out to more marginalized or disenfranchised communities and make sure that they’re a part of the conversation,” she said.

Though still in her junior year in high school with a year to go before graduating, Sunder already has an eye toward higher education. She plans to major in international affairs and political science, which she hopes will help her either work in the political field or attend law school with a view toward becoming an environmental lawyer. She looks forward to supporting progressive values and causes while in college.

“I will be directly exposed to people [who are] against religious freedom,” she admits, adding that she “will definitely support campaigns that stand to separate church and state and make sure that I’m not supporting candidates that make their policy decisions primarily on religious belief.”

As she writes in her essay and embellishes in her personal life, activism can both inspire hope and provide a voice for all who engage in it, especially for the younger generation that will shape the country for decades to come.

“While Gavin’s case may not be setting a national precedent just yet, we can influence national policy today,” Sunder concludes “By speaking out at rallies and meetings and voting out politicians that are too concerned with our bathroom business, we can increase the divide between church and state and decrease the divide between the LGBTQ community and the rest of the country.”

For Sunder, AU’s essay contest has provided an important platform for young church-state separation activists who rely on their voice to make a difference in the country and the world.

“This [essay contest] is a great concept to get young people talking about these issues because I can’t just submit a brief to the Supreme Court and [have them] read it, so it’s good to have an outlet to voice about how I feel about these issues,” Sunder said.