“The Do Not Harm Act would bring about an immeasurable amount of safety, security and above all hope,” says Michael Hallinan, in his first-place submission to Americans United’s 2021 Student Essay Contest. Young people across the country agreed with Michael – we were blown away to receive over 330 submissions to this year’s contest, which asked high school students to make the case for the Do No Harm Act, important federal legislation to protect religious freedom and equality for all.

Regular readers of this blog and longtime supporters will know that AU’s annual essay contest is one way we encourage young people to reflect on why religious freedom and church-state separation are important to them, their peers, their families and their communities. And now I’m thrilled to share the 2021 winners with you. 

In his winning essay, Hallinan, a resident of Lakewood, Colo., shares his perspective as a gay, Christian teenager fighting for equality for all, including in foster care and adoption programs. Sarah Geist of San Diego won second place for her essay which makes the case for why her fellow Christians should support the Do No Harm Act despite the flawed claims of the Religious Right. And Oliver Petersen of Washington, D.C., wrote about the importance of the Do No Harm Act to address discrimination against transgender people, especially in health care and employment.

These three essays rose to the top of hundreds submissions from across the country that included personal experiences, compelling storytelling, historical research, policy analysis and more. The AU team read meticulously through these thoughtful and well-written submissions throughout the spring. We first narrowed the submissions down to fifteen finalists, then a panel of youth leaders and staff from across the organization read, discussed and chose the three winners from among the finalists. 

It was difficult to choose just three winners, but we think you’ll agree: The prize-winning essays are passionately written, well-researched and articulate a strong argument for how the Do No Harm Act would impact church-state separation and the real lives of people in the United States. The contest winners received prizes of $500-1,500 and will have their essays published on this blog this week. Our top prize winner was also featured in Church & State magazine this month; you can read that article here. 

Keep visiting au.org and our social media channels @americansunited on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram over the next three days as we share more about the third-, second- and first-place prize winners, and be sure to share them with your networks to help us amplify the voices of the youngest generation fighting for church-state separation.