Linda Greenhouse — Roberts’ court shows its religious colors

This article first appeared in The New York Times on July 16 and is reprinted with permission.

By Linda Greenhouse

For once, the conventional wisdom was right: The Supreme Court term that ended in July was a triumph for Chief Justice John Roberts. But, as usual, the conventional wisdom skims the surface, focusing on the obvious: his steering of the court toward a center comfortably aligned with public opinion, and protecting it from an institutionally destructive alliance with a president who assumed the court would do his bidding.

I’m among those who celebrate these outcomes, and I don’t in any way mean to diminish them. Rather, I want to suggest that the 2019-20 Supreme Court term looks even more consequential, for the country and the chief justice, when his triumph is seen in full, in its multiple dimensions.

To do that requires looking closely at the three religion cases decided at the end of the term.

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court held that a state that offers a subsidy to private schools can’t exclude religious schools from the benefit. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the court ruled that the federal laws that protect workers from discrimination don’t apply to the lay employees of religious schools who have a role in “educating and forming students in the faith.” And in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, the court excused employers, including corporations, with a “sincerely held” religious or “moral” objection to birth control from having to take even a modest arm’s-length step that results in an employee receiving coverage for contraception, to which the Affordable Care Act entitles her.

Roberts wrote the majority opinion in only the first of these cases; he assigned the opinion in the second to Justice Samuel Alito and the third to Justice Clarence Thomas. While the first two involve the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion, the third, concerning a rule put in place by the Trump administration, is not based on the Constitution but rather on administrative law and a federal statute.

But the decisions’ commonalities are more important than their differences. All three elevate religion to a position of privilege, short-circuiting the statutory rights of employees or, in Montana’s case, overriding an explicit state constitutional barrier against public financial aid to parochial schools. And all three go to the heart of John Roberts’s project.

By “project” I don’t mean something nefarious. To the contrary, it’s not surprising that the ambitious and accomplished people who make it to the Supreme Court have some goal or goals in mind, some way they would like to move the law or, in the case of liberal justices in recent decades, to prevent it from moving in an unwanted direction. For Chief Justice Warren Burger, the project was rolling back the criminal procedure revolution over which his predecessor, Earl Warren, had presided. For Chief Justice William Rehnquist, an Arizonan who came to Washington in midlife, it was, among other things, elevating the role of the states in the federal system.

Federalism as such is not much of a motivator for his successor, Roberts, who has spent his entire career comfortably ensconced inside the Beltway. Nor does he, unlike Alito, appear driven to cut back on criminal defendants’ rights at every opportunity. After 15 years of watching John Roberts as chief justice, I’ve identified two main projects.

Two main projects

One concerns race: getting the government out of the business of counting by race by rejecting both affirmative action that increases opportunity for racial minorities and federally policed guardrails to prevent the suppression of minority votes. His early years on the job reflected this deep commitment, first with the Parents Involved case in 2006, overturning efforts by two school districts to maintain integration through race-conscious school assignment measures, and, six years later, with Shelby County v. Holder, which cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The other project is religion: giving religion a place at the public table long reserved for secular society; removing barriers to religious expression in the public square; insisting on organized religion’s entitlement to public benefits as a matter of equal treatment while at the same time according religion special treatment in the form of relief from the regulations that everyone else must live by. Benefits without burdens, equal treatment morphing into special treatment.

This term’s trio of religion decisions carried the project into new territory. The chief justice’s opinion in the Montana case, Espinoza, was particularly eyebrow raising, because when the case reached the court, there was no longer a tax credit program in place for any nonpublic school. That the program no longer existed for anyone would seem to make a claim of anti-religious discrimination implausible at best.

Not so, the chief justice wrote for the 5-to-4 majority. He said the program’s cancellation “cannot be defended as a neutral policy decision” because it resulted from a decision of the Montana Supreme Court that the state Constitution’s “no aid” provision meant that religious schools could not be included in the program. Because the state court said it couldn’t effectively rewrite the statute, it invalidated the entire program. But Roberts found this application of the “no aid” provision to be itself a violation of the federal Free Exercise Clause, amounting to “discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed in dissent that “it appears that the court has declared that once Montana created a tax subsidy, it forfeited the right to eliminate it if doing so would harm religion.” She continued, “This is a remarkable result, all the more so because the court strains to reach it.”

It seems to me that the religion cases represent a triumph for Roberts on a different, deeper level than do the cases that left many liberals cheering at the end of the term. Consider three of the most prominent of those cases: the decisions that brought LGBTQ individuals into the category of employees protected against workplace discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; that blocked President Trump from ending the DACA program that enables young undocumented immigrants, the Dreamers, to work legally and protects them from deportation; and that struck down a Louisiana law aimed at driving abortion clinics out of business. Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the Dreamers case, joined Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion in the LGBTQ case and wrote a concurring opinion in the abortion case.

‘Yes, but’ vs. ‘Yes, and’

While hailing each of those decisions, I think it’s still possible to take a clear-eyed look at them and to put each in a category that I call “yes, but.”

Yes, employers now can’t fire someone for being gay or transgender, but we have yet to see the carve-outs that the religious right will demand and to which the court may well accede in subsequent cases. Yes, the president can’t end the DACA program in such a clumsy way, but the decision offers a road map for how to do it better. Yes, the Louisiana law replicated a Texas statute that the court had already rejected, but Roberts court was careful to leave the door open to continued attacks on the right to abortion.

The religion decisions, by contrast, consist of cases that I would call “yes, and.” While the other decisions went no further than necessary to achieve their result, the religion cases went considerably further than they needed to, each one taking and running with one of the court’s recent applicable precedents.

For example, the Montana schools decision built on a three-year-old opinion by Roberts in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, holding that Missouri could not exclude a church-run preschool from eligibility to apply for a state grant to resurface its playground. The church’s exclusion, under a provision of the Missouri Constitution, imposed “a penalty on the free exercise of religion,” the chief justice wrote then. In a footnote, he added that the court was addressing only “express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing.” It didn’t take long for the no-discrimination doctrine of Trinity Lutheran to migrate to the heartland of church-state controversy in America: public financing of religious education.

The Our Lady of Guadalupe School case, which stripped anti-discrimination protection from elementary teachers at two Catholic schools, also built on an earlier opinion by Roberts in which the court first endorsed a judicial doctrine called the ministerial exception (as in exception from federal civil rights laws.) In the earlier case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., the teacher who claimed discrimination, while not an ordained minister, had received extensive religious training and served in what the Lutheran church deemed a “called” capacity.

By contrast, the two elementary schoolteachers in the new case were ordinary classroom teachers with minimal training who taught the required religion classes out of a workbook. The court extended the ministerial exception to them and, by implication, to all parochial school teachers and perhaps other school employees as well. (One of the teachers was fired after she requested time off to be treated for breast cancer; she died while her Americans With Disabilities Act case was pending.)

In her dissenting opinion, Sotomayor objected that in contrast to the detailed analysis in the Hosanna-Tabor case, the court this time “all but abandons judicial review” and “has just traded legal analysis for a rubber stamp.”

The Little Sisters decision represents a blatant bait-and-switch. Six years ago, when the 5-to-4 majority in the Hobby Lobby case held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act required the Obama administration to offer an accommodation for religious employers that did not want to pay for insurance coverage for contraceptives, Alito’s opinion for the court was reassuring about the consequences. The effect “would be precisely zero,” he said, adding that female employees of the objecting companies “would still be entitled to all F.D.A.-approved contraceptives without cost-sharing.”

Of course, that assurance became the basis for the religious employers’ resistance to the accommodation on the ground of complicity. In any event, no such reassurance was forthcoming this time. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed that 580,000 women work for employers eligible for the exemption.

“Of cardinal significance,” she wrote, “the exemption contains no alternative mechanism to ensure affected women’s continued access to contraceptive coverage.” The government, Ginsburg said, “may not benefit religious adherents at the expense of the rights of third parties.”

Put that in the past tense. Label it the Roberts project and call it a triumph.

In June 2006, as his first term was nearing an end, I ran into Roberts at the court. There aren’t many questions a person can appropriately ask a Supreme Court justice, so I went with the obvious: “What are your summer plans?”

He had a pile of biographies of chief justices that he planned to read, he said. And then with a wry smile he added, “You know, most of them were failures.”

John Roberts doesn’t have to worry.

Linda Greenhouse, the winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, writes about the Supreme Court and the law and is the author of several books.

Official portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

Katherine Stewart — The holy war against liberal democracy

This article first appeared on website on July 13.

By Katherine Stewart


Katherine Stewart

n Russia, where President Vladimir Putin wants to insert references to God and heterosexual marriage into the constitution, certain forms of violence against women have been decriminalized — so long as the violence takes place within a traditional marriage.

In Poland, where abortion access is already severely restricted, President Andrzej Duda has promised to sign draft legislation that would compel women to carry to term fetuses with severe congenital deformities, and a third of municipalities have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones” — all in order to “defend Christian values,” as one leader of the ruling party puts it.

In Turkey, reports of gender-based violence have risen sharply under the auspices of a president who has derided women’s equality and railed against birth control while claiming to champion traditional families.

In the United States, we should become increasingly familiar with this pernicious form of religious nationalism because, under the banner of “religious freedom,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to offer his blessing to these kinds of initiatives. In 2019, Pompeo established the Commission on Unalienable Rights, a commission ostensibly intended to reformulate America’s commitment to advancing human rights abroad. But the secretary of state already seems to know which rights may take preference, and at whose expense.

“There are those who would have preferred I didn’t do it and are concerned about the answers that our foundational documents will provide,” Pompeo commented last fall at a gathering of the Concerned Women for America, a conservative women’s group, at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. “I know where those rights came from. They came from the Lord.”

To be clear, at that gathering, Pompeo expressed a concern for the rights of a variety of oppressed religious groups, from the Uighurs in China to the Yazidis in the Middle East to persecuted Christians in countries like Iraq. Religious persecution is real and devastating. But these expressions of support for the genuinely oppressed are far from the only agenda of the commission, which seems to have more to do with securing the freedom of some governments to impose religious orthodoxy on their own populations.

Around the world, the formulas of religious authoritarianism are remarkably consistent. The leaders convince their followers that their religion is under threat from a despicable or demonic force. The invisible enemy usually involves some combination of globalism, secularism, liberalism, feminism. The leaders promise to grant followers the “freedom” to direct their hate against these deviants. And then the regime goes on to strip everyone else of their rights, bolster hyperconservative religious allies with public funds, and consolidate a kleptocracy where religion is too often reduced to organized hypocrisy.

Women and LGBT people are the canaries in the coal mine of human rights. Wherever their rights start to collapse, you can be sure, the freedom of the press, the freedom from corruption, and the freedom from fear will soon fall, too.

Mike Pompeo and his commission represent the stirrings of this kind of movement in the United States. Pompeo’s declared aim is to make “religious liberty” count as America’s “first freedom” and as the central pillar of its international human rights policy. Sounds inspiring, right? Too bad that “religious liberty,” in the mouths of so many cabinet leaders in the Trump administration, really means something like “religious privilege.”

For years now, leaders of America’s Religious Right have been making the spurious claim that the Constitution is written in the language of “natural law,” and that it entitles them not only to discriminate against gay people and others of whom they do not approve, but also to a steady stream of public money in the form of unique subsidies, exemptions, vouchers, grants and other means. They have also aggressively cultivated the conviction that they themselves are the victims of persecution.

A glance at the roster of commissioners is sufficient to make clear the purpose of Pompeo’s effort. Seven of the 12 commissioners, according to analysis by GLAAD, were already on record expressing hostility to LGBT rights. The chair of the commission, Mary Ann Glendon, is a former ambassador to the Vatican and has opposed women’s reproductive rights just as vigorously as she has defended the Catholic Church against scrutiny. She once suggested that honoring Boston Globe reporters for their work in exposing an epidemic of child abuse by Catholic priests would be like awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.

Almost immediately after the commission was formed, hundreds of human rights organizations, foreign policy experts, scholars, faith leaders and former government officials recommended the body be disbanded. In May 2020, in anticipation of the commission’s report, 20 senators challenged the commission for featuring “a group of largely ideologically uniform scholars, some of whom have expressed views openly hostile to internationally-recognized human rights.”

As Rob Berschinski and Andrea Worden note on the website Just Security, “Pompeo continues to serve as the commission’s cheerleader-in-chief, generally referencing the body’s motivating theme in unabashedly religious terms.”

One group that is happy with Pompeo’s program, on the other hand, is the leadership of America’s Christian Nationalist movement. In a conversation about the commission with Pompeo in January 2020, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said, “When you talk about this, you’re essentially saying allow countries to make their own decisions based upon their religious conviction and cultural heritage and not force them through a form of cultural imperialism with our global policies to adhere to something that is an anathema to them.” Which is pretty much what the Polish right-wingers say when they set up their “LGBT-free” zones. So much for “religious freedom.”

True religious persecution is a terrible scourge and assisting those who suffer from it will require a broadly coordinated effort. But that is precisely why an issue as important as this should not be put in the hands of people who largely represent one skewed perspective. Pompeo has also worked hard to staff the agencies that disperse U.S. funds with ideologues who share his views. He recently appointed Merritt Corrigan as USAID’s new deputy White House liaison, who wrote, “Liberal democracy is little more than a front for the war being waged against us by those who fundamentally despise not only our way of life, but life itself.”  Bethany Kozma, deputy chief of staff for USAID, has declared that the “U.S. is a pro-life nation.”

Although the American public often has trouble accepting what is going on at the highest levels of the American government, religious authoritarians abroad have no such trouble. They see it — and they like what they see. Over the past several years, alliances between America’s Christian Nationalists and like-minded religious nationalists in other countries have grown in strength, with links forged through groups, such as the International Organization for the Family, that couch their advocacy for regressive social positions as a defense of the “natural family.”

It is hard to imagine anything worse for the American national interest than making the United States a leader of such a regressive agenda. Pompeo’s commission and other efforts to promote “religious freedom” will not only undermine the rights of many people around the world, it will also promote some authoritarian regimes at the expense of democratic movements and diminish still further America’s credibility as a champion of democracy at home and abroad.

So why on Earth would any secretary of state pursue such a course of action? The answers are the same in the United States as they are in the regimes that Pompeo’s policy will end up assisting. President Trump knows that his hopes for political survival depend almost entirely on his base of white Christian Nationalist supporters, and Pompeo has demonstrated that he will stop at nothing to please his boss — especially if it might enhance his reputation and career prospects.

If blessing some more LGBT-free zones and spouse abuse-friendly regimes is a way to consolidate authoritarianism at home, he seems happy to make the trade.

Katherine Stewart is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism and will speak at FFRF’s national convention in Boston in 2021.

Micah Schwartzman, Richard Schragger, Nelson Tebbe — State-church separation is breaking down

Religious groups getting special treatment from pandemic-relief efforts

This article first appeared in The Atlantic on June 29 and is reprinted with permission.

By Micah Schwartzman, Richard Schragger, Nelson Tebbe

The separation of church and state is supposed to prevent government favoritism of religion in the United States. For most of the past century, the Supreme Court int

Photo by Shutterstock
Planned Parenthood centers are being asked to return their Payment Protection Program funds because of a rule that religious organizations don’t have to follow.

erpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to mean that government cannot “pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” Under this principle of disestablishment, at the very least, the government cannot give special privileges to religious organizations beyond what is available to similarly situated nonreligious groups. 

But the past few months have seen a near-complete collapse of this principle at the national level, at least with respect to government funding of religion. Under the Payment Protection Program, which has allocated $669 billion in subsidies to support small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, the government has extended funding to churches and other houses of worship. This program is unprecedented in terms of the sheer amount of money involved and the religious nature of the activities, including payment of clergy salaries, that the government is subsidizing.

As we recently wrote in The New York Times [reprinted in the August issue of Freethought Today], this funding of faith-based organizations has received little attention, in part because of the sense that churches, like other groups, have been harmed by government-ordered shutdowns. If churches have to comply with public-health restrictions like other businesses and nonprofits, then they should also be compensated, the thinking goes. In short, they should receive equal treatment when it comes to PPP funding.

But religious and nonreligious groups are not being treated equally under the program. Far from it. The Small Business Administration has granted a special exemption from its eligibility rules. Those rules are designed to guarantee that PPP loans support only small business and nonprofits, defined as those with fewer than 500 employers. To that end, one of the rules denies aid to organizations that are affiliated with larger entities. For religious nonprofits, however, the SBA has waived that rule.

As a result, many religious organizations, including thousands of local congregations, received hundreds of millions, and likely billions, of dollars in PPP loans — even though they are affiliated with large organizations that altogether have more than 500 employees.

Yet secular nonprofits — such as the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, and Goodwill — that may have similar affiliation structures are not eligible for this exemption. In fact, they may be entirely excluded from receiving PPP loans. Now these large nonprofits are facing legal risks that religious entities are not. The SBA’s implementation of the program thus privileges nationally affiliated religious organizations over their nonreligious counterparts. The extent of this disparity should become clearer when the SBA discloses more detailed data about PPP loans and their recipients, which it has now promised to do, reversing its earlier refusal to release such information.

For now, the SBA’s discrimination in favor of religious organizations is most visible in the case of Planned Parenthood. When PPP funding became available, 38 local Planned Parenthood centers requested and received federal loans totaling about $80 million. But the SBA is now demanding that those Planned Parenthood affiliates return the money they received. It claims that these local centers are ineligible because they are controlled by a national umbrella organization, Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

A group of 27 Republican senators, led by Tom Cotton and Mitch McConnell, latched on to this argument. In a May 21 letter, they called on Attorney General William Barr to open an investigation into Planned Parenthood and suggested that the affiliates should be subjected to civil and criminal penalties for filing fraudulent loan applications. Sen. Marco Rubio, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the SBA, also demanded that the agency cancel PPP loans to Planned Parenthood affiliates and investigate them for wrongdoing. In response, Senate Democrats charged the SBA with attacking Planned Parenthood for partisan, ideological purposes. For its part, Planned Parenthood released a statement saying that its local centers satisfy the SBA’s existing eligibility requirements.   

This back-and-forth between Republican and Democratic senators is only the latest iteration of political conflicts over abortion. Conservative politicians have long sought to defund Planned Parenthood because of its support for women’s reproductive rights, including abortion services; liberals and progressives have in turn defended the organization. So, the Republicans’ motivation for targeting Planned Parenthood is no mystery.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem with these recent attacks on Planned Parenthood. By privileging religious organizations over secular nonprofits, the SBA and GOP senators are advancing a position that contravenes the Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from giving special subsidies to religious organizations. One might have thought that the separation of church and state would bar churches from receiving PPP loans to fund clergy salaries. But even as the Supreme Court has moved away from a principle of separation, initially by allowing public funding of religious organizations and now more and more toward requiring equal treatment, a policy of favoring religious groups would turn the Establishment Clause completely on its head. And indeed, one important and longstanding objection to a regime of equal funding is that it leads precisely to this result, namely, preferential treatment for religion.

The SBA’s implementation of PPP funding shows how equal treatment can devolve into such favoritism. The Trump Administration has claimed that churches must receive federal funding on equal terms with secular nonprofits. But the SBA’s religious waiver of its affiliation rules means that religious groups are not, in fact, being treated equally — they are being favored, and on a massive scale. Religious groups that would otherwise be excluded from funding under neutral affiliation rules can receive billions of dollars in federal aid, while organizations like Planned Parenthood receive nothing.

Why should secular nonprofits be treated one way and religious groups another? The SBA waived its affiliation rules for faith-based organizations because it believed that those rules would “substantially burden” groups that are religiously committed to hierarchical forms of organization. According to the SBA, its religious exemption is authorized under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and perhaps under the First Amendment, which has been interpreted to limit government interference with the internal decisions of religious organizations.

There is reason to be skeptical about these arguments. Neutral affiliation rules, which limit the size of loan recipients, do not trigger protection under the RFRA or interfere with the decision making of religious organizations. But if those dangers exist, they can be addressed by exempting all nonprofits from the affiliation rules — by treating all such employers equally. What cannot be justified is granting religious groups an accommodation that enables federal funding while disadvantaging secular organizations that are similarly structured.

The SBA’s unequal application of its rules conflicts with existing legal doctrine under the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court held in a crucial 1989 case, Texas Monthly v. Bullock, that Texas could not exempt religious periodicals from its sales tax while taxing secular ones like Texas Monthly. But here the SBA has done much the same thing.

The Supreme Court recently emphasized the importance of treating religious organizations like nonreligious groups in granting public benefits. Last month, in the first Supreme Court decision involving churches during the COVID-19 outbreak, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a dissenting opinion that “the Church and its congregants simply want to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses.” But when it comes to PPP funding, some churches don’t want equality. They want to be treated more favorably than their secular counterparts.

Planned Parenthood affiliates have constitutional grounds for resisting demands to return their PPP loans. If small religious nonprofits are eligible to receive PPP funds, even though they are affiliates of large national organizations, then the same eligibility rules must apply to secular nonprofits such as Planned Parenthood.

There cannot be two sets of funding rules — one that sends billions of dollars to local religious congregations and one that denies the same support to secular nonprofits. If those rules are constitutional, even as they allow more direct financial support for churches than at any other point in American history, then the Establishment Clause has lost its meaning. At the very least, it must stand for the proposition that the government cannot pick out religious organizations for special privileges. If that principle collapses, the country will be witnessing not only the end of the separation of church and state with respect to public funding but also a subversion of the commitment to equal treatment that is said to be replacing it. Instead, what will exist is a regime that favors religious organizations above others.

This article is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.

Winners of FFRF’s 2020 high school essay contest!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the winners of the 2020 William Schulz High School Essay Contest. FFRF is awarding an unprecedented $26,100 in scholarship money for this year’s contest!

College-bound high school seniors were asked to write a personal persuasive essay based on this prompt: “Write a persuasive, personal essay about why you reject religion and think others would be better off doing so, too. You may wish to include experiences or challenges you have faced as a young freethinker.”

After reviewing 491 essays (a record!), FFRF awarded 15 top prizes and 16 honorable mentions.

Winners are listed below and include the college or university they will be attending and the award amount.

First Place

Arianna Kassatly, 18, Florida State University, $3,500

Second Place (tie)

Liliana Austin, 18, Brampton University of Ottawa, $3,000

Jonah Mathisson, 18, University of Michigan, $3,000

Third Place (tie)

Kara Curtis, 18, University of Texas at Dallas, $2,500

Jana Kelly, 18, Brown University, $2,500

Fourth Place

Katherine Gerhardt, 17, University of California-Berkley, $2,000

Fifth Place

James Tripp Conway, 18, University of Kentucky, $1,500

Sixth Place

Paris Huckaby, 18, University of Colorado-Boulder, $1,000

Seventh Place (tie)

Kaitlin Eblen, 18, University of California-Los Angeles, $750

Arielle Fentress, 18, Cleveland Institute of Music, $750

Eighth Place

Anderson Lynch, 18, Oglethorpe University, $500.

Ninth Place (tie)

Ahndiya Kiburi, 18, University of California-Davis, $400

Isaiah Welch-Novels, 18, University of New Haven, $400

Tenth Place (tie)

Asia Felton, 189, Loyola Marymount University, $300

Samantha Schwarz, University of California-Los Angeles, $300

Honorable mentions ($200 each)

Yiping An, 18, Carnegie Mellon University

Soji Bedsole, 18, Auburn University

Hailey Cheng, 18, Columbia University

Julia Dimov, 18, Appalachian State

Alan Dupre, 18, Arizona State University

Brina Howell, 18, Kutztown University

Adam Johnson, 18, Duke University

Sofia Jorgensen, 18, University of Washington

Sierra Kolodjski, 18, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Daisy Martinez, 18, Blinn College

Harikeshav Narayan, 18, Indiana University-Bloomington

Alvaro Ortiz, 18, University of California-Berkley

Allen Papp, 18, University of Texas at Austin

Ashleigh Price, 18, Eastern Illinois University

Anastazia Rudolph, 18, University of Alaska-Fairbanks

Melinda Zou, 18, University of California-Berkley

“The number of compassionate and passionate essays we received from a record number of graduating seniors who reject religion gives great cause for optimism for the future of freethought,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Every single essay entry had value and worth.” Those who are not named winners receive a complimentary digital FFRF membership for a year and are offered a book or freethought product as a thank-you for entering.

The high school contest is named for the late William J. Schulz, a Wisconsin member and life-long learner who died at 57 and left a generous bequest to FFRF.

FFRF thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $26,100 reflects these bonuses.

FFRF also warmly thanks FFRF “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the infinite details of this and FFRF’s four other annual student competitions, and the challenges of doing it remotely. And we couldn’t judge these contests without our “faithful faithless” readers and judges, including: Linda Aten, Dan Barker, Darrell Barker, Kristina Daleiden, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Judi Jacobs, Linda Josheff, Dan Kettner, Kathy Kunz, Gloria Marquardt, Katya Maes, Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey, Amit Pal, Sue Schuetz, Lauryn Seering, PJ Slinger, Katrina Treu, Lisa Treu and Karen Lee Weidig.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad students since 2010 and one dedicated to students of color since 2016. A fifth contest, open to law students, began in 2019.

Essay contests

First place — High school essay contest: Arianna Kassatly

Arianna Kassatly

I don’t need to be fixed, thank you

FFRF awarded Arianna $3,500 for her essay.

By Arianna Kassatly

“Yeah, I’ve just never really considered myself religious. I prefer to think freely, you know, instead of following the rules of a 3,500-year-old book that has been rewritten over and over again by power hungry white men.”

Every time one of my privileged peers pressures me into explaining my lack of spirituality, that is the monologue I recite. Their jaws usually drop, followed by a mumbling apology, and a brisk exit from the conversation, but I’ve never quite understood why. Is anything that I said untrue? If Jesus/God is real, why would he let a raging pandemic end the lives of thousands? If he were real, why would he let racism and bullying swallow my childhood years? If he were real, why would he let me, or anyone else, grow up without a father?

Religion is simply a trap in our modern society, convincing kids to stop having sex, only so that parents can rest at night knowing that their little girl is “pure and clean.” Christians claim that “loving thy neighbor” is the only way to secure a place in heaven, and then continue to fight for the restricted rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Why can’t these people see that they are being controlled, brainwashed even? Their narcissistic ways are limiting the opportunities of growth that they so obviously desire.

So why not just live? Without a book telling you what you can and cannot do. Without a judgmental group of “friends” that will abandon you the moment you get into real trouble. Without the constant pressure to be a “perfect Christian.”

I do. I live freely, and I love my life. I guide my own path, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I have a perfect 4.0 GPA, big dreams, and strong relationships that support me. So, no, I don’t need to go to church with you. I don’t need to start a relationship with God. I don’t need to be fixed. I am free, and I am happy.

Arianna, 18, is from Sugar Hill, Ga., and will be attending Florida State University. She enjoys performing in theatre shows and also volunteers as a student theater director for elementary school students. She was raised by a single mother who each year takes her and her brother to a previously unvisited country. When she isn’t traveling, she works as a waitress.

Second place (tie) — High school essay contest: Liliana Austin

Liliana Austin

Growing up Catholic in a prison of guilt

FFRF awarded Liliana $3,000 for her essay.

By Liliana Austin

In Catholicism, you’re born a sinner, live a sinner and die a sinner. You spend your whole life attempting to redeem yourself for sins committed centuries before your birth, to be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

The guilt that comes with Catholicism is crushing. You second-guess every action, every thought, asking, “What would Jesus do?” You live in a perpetual state of shame, knowing you are not and will never be good enough. There’s a voice in the back of your head whispering threats of eternal damnation, fire and brimstone. Life is hell and, it seems, it’s only the prequel.

I was born to a single mother and raised Catholic, a contradiction in itself. I went to Catholic school, where I learned that my very existence is a sin, that my family is wrong. I am wrong, double-damned, extra-unworthy of Christ’s sacrifice. Hitting puberty and discovering I like girls was the cherry on top.

Becoming agnostic didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow process, small things plucking at threads until the whole tapestry was shredded. The first thing was money — our church couldn’t seem to get enough of it. They passed around the collection plate twice per mass, guilt-tripping even those who had nothing to give. Not a cent went to the poor.

Next was the sexual abuse. Then it was the Church’s views on just about everything: homosexuality, birth control, divorce. I started noticing how much shame the Church pushed onto people, and then I noticed how much shame the Church pushed onto me. I had this feeling of being suffocated by guilt I did nothing to deserve. I realized that I didn’t believe in God; I simply feared the punishment I would receive if I didn’t.

I don’t know if God exists. I do know that I’m alive and that counts for something.

Agnosticism has freed me from the prison of guilt the Catholic Church trapped me in. I don’t know if it’s the right answer, but it’s one that doesn’t tell me I’m an abomination every day of my life.

Liliana, 18, is from Brampton, Ontario, Canada, and will be attending the University of Ottawa, with plans to major in biomedical science. She is a boxer, published poet and science enthusiast. She dreams of becoming a doctor and working with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Second place (tie) — High school essay contest: Jonah Mathisson

Jonah Mathisson

Where is God in the back of the ambulance?

FFRF awarded Jonah $3,000 for his essay.

By Jonah Mathisson

There is a certain type of atheist who can pinpoint an exact moment in time when God died for them. I know these people exist because I am one of them.

I volunteer as an EMT on my local ambulance. When we get a critical patient in the back of the ambulance and are racing the clock, it can be tempting to pray. And believe me, I know how.

When I was young, Saturday meant an early wake-up for Hebrew school and services.  I went to a Jewish summer camp for years where we would pray before and after each meal and before bed. I recited Torah at my bar mitzvah, and have visited Israel twice for religious reasons. I did all of this happily, eager to please my parents, family and rabbi.

God died for me in the best possible way. On March 20, 2019, I crewed a cardiac arrest. After intubation, several shocks and numerous rounds of chest compressions, the patient regained a pulse. I was later informed that he left the hospital on his own two feet. Later, I caught myself reflexively praising God for this man’s continued life. Yet, where was God in the ambulance? I had watched and assisted a well-trained crew of health-care professionals perform life-saving interventions. I now realize it is impossible to reconcile the concept of an omnipotent God with the work we do in EMS. Even considering such an idea would alienate the critical nature of our call to action and imply that our patient lacking in perfusion didn’t truly need our help.

Now that I have expelled God from the back of the ambulance, it is a much safer place. Patients need not wait for divine intervention when medical intervention is at hand. I am an unabashed atheist because if I ever end up in the back of the ambulance, I want the paramedic to be one too. To all the religious EMTs, commercial pilots, doctors, and firefighters, heed my entirely non-prophetic words: Civilians’ lives are in your hands, not God’s.

Jonah, 18, is from Rye, N.Y., and plans to attend the University of Michigan, where he plans to study biology and eventually become a doctor. He is a volunteer EMT. In high school, he was president of the Science Olympiad team, founder of the chess club, an editor for the school newspaper and captain of the cross country team. He won the St. Vincent’s Youth Award at his high school for his commitment to volunteerism.

Third place (tie) — High school essay contest: Kara Curtis

Kara Curtis

Attempting to pave the way for tolerance

FFRF awarded Kara $2,500.

By Kara Curtis

I was raised atheist in rural Texas. In middle school, I passed 15 crosses in my eight-period day — on bookshelves, teachers’ desks, or by the door as students walked into class. Half of all the school gossip started with “last night at church.” We closed our school choir concerts with “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” People forget, especially in places as insular as my little town, that anyone could not believe what they do. I do my best to be vocal about my atheism because I truly believe that I can make a difference. When people are used to everyone sharing their religious views, sometimes all it takes is a reminder that people believe other things to open the way for sensitivity and understanding.

As the valedictorian of my graduating class, I like to think I serve as a pretty big reminder. One of my friends, a confirmed Christian and regular church-goer, refused to open our graduation with a prayer. She told me she didn’t want to make people who didn’t share her religious views uncomfortable. As the only non-Christian she knows, I feel pretty confident taking credit for that. (I admittedly have the privilege to change people’s attitudes and perspectives as a white born-and-bred country girl that the Muslim girl two grades below me who moved into my town last year does not.)

I am an unabashed atheist in an attempt to pave the way for religious tolerance in a town that is used to tolerating only one religion. I am an unabashed atheist not because I hate my community, but because I love it so much. I want them to see that there can be people among them who don’t believe what they do, and they are still people worthy of respect and kindness. I’m an atheist because I just find no evidence pointing to a higher power. I’m an unabashed atheist because I hope that every day I am unabashed, I make things just a little bit easier for the person who comes after me.

Kara, 18, is from Gunter, Texas and will be attending the University of Texas at Dallas, where she plans to study international political economy. She was her school’s valedictorian and a National Merit Commended Student. She volunteered in Panama, worked with dog rescue organizations and started a nonprofit centered around opera called Opera Teens. In high school, she was in the all-state choir, captain of the golf team, founded and led several academic teams and worked with Spanish-speaking English Second Language students.

Third place (tie) — High school essay contest: Jana Kelly

Jana Kelly

Each of us is an almighty force of nature

FFRF awarded Jana $2,500 for her essay.

By Jana Kelly

I was raised by a father who was a byproduct of mental illness and child neglect. He was born to a 72-year-old man who’d already had a first batch of children, and all he would tell me about the grandfather I’d never met was this: “The only time he paid me attention was to make sure I went to church.” Naturally, this led my father to raise me as an agnostic. I grew up without the influence of any holy book, and while I respect the right of those who worship, I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I were leaning on a deity.

Because my childhood was devoid of a mystical guiding figure, I learned to guide myself. I learned the capabilities of my own mind, and I learned self-reliance. You see, as beautiful as it is to believe in something, religion can distract you from true celebration. I see people saying they got into Harvard because of God, or they got this great new job because of him. While faith is security, it is also a disavowal of self-reward. You got into Harvard because you worked hard for that 4.0. You got that job because you are smart and qualified. Without the obligation of having to chalk my successes up to Someone or Something, I’ve learned to worship myself above all. I’ve learned to see myself as the purest, most powerful force of nature.

I am unabashedly agnostic because the world is full of inevitability. We are but specks in this infinite universe — who are we to assign meaning to how we came to be? It’s incredibly freeing to live without requirements or covenants. Life is so short, and in a vacuum of potentially unlimited knowledge, I’d suggest we spend it wisely. Not everything has to be a sign from the heavens. You get what you pay for and you earn what you work for. We don’t need to justify our existences with the creation of some almighty power. We, on our own, are almighty. 

Jana, 18, is from Davie, Fla., and will be attending Brown University, with plans to major in English. She hopes to become an English professor (and win a Pulitzer!). She lives with her brother and mother, who was born in Thailand, where they visit every summer. During high school, she was a speech and debate competitor, classical guitar student and the president of her school’s Dead Poets Society.

Fourth place — High school essay contest: Katherine Gerhardt

Katherine Gerhardt

Nonreligious perspective has been freeing

FFRF awarded Katherine $2,000 for her essay.

By Katherine Gerhardt

Growing up Christian, I was always bothered by a kernel of doubt about religion. As I matured, that kernel grew until it exploded and I became an atheist. Now, I view the world from a completely different perspective. My sense of morality comes from my ability to empathize with other people, contemplating life in general and observing the world around me. I live my life as if it’s the only one.

I first began doubting my Christianity when the bible was read to me. Numerous questions flew through my mind. Why were dinosaurs not mentioned in the bible? If Santa is not real, how did I know God was? As elementary as these questions were, the answers never satisfied me. I was told that the bible was metaphorical. However, it all seemed to be a sloppy cover-up story to me. 

As the years progressed, I developed an interest in science. It was then that I discovered that there was no objective evidence at all that the supernatural realm even exists. After all, in our experience as a species, we have found the natural explanation for almost anything we previously thought was supernatural. And if we haven’t — it’s only a matter of time. 

When I entered middle school, my parents divorced, and this threw my mother in an unstable financial state. I placed my religious doubts aside and prayed every night, searching for answers and relief, but support was never granted. It got me thinking: Why would God let his innocent children suffer? If it were merely a test, why were immoral people rewarded? It all seemed counterintuitive. When I asked myself, “Do you really believe God exists?”, the answer was no. From that point on, I knew I was an atheist. 

Now, when people ask me, “Why are you an atheist?”, I answer with “Why aren’t you?” Think about it. Why should you believe in something without any objective proof? A belief that relies on blind faith? Personally, since becoming an atheist, my life has become clearer, simpler and more enjoyable. I finally feel free. 

Katherine, 17, is from Fairfield, Calif., and plans to attend the University of California-Berkley with hopes of becoming a bioengineering major. She would like to become an anesthesiologist. Katherine is a competitive figure skater and has won multiple awards on the state and semi-national level. She was valedictorian at her school and was a member of the Key Club, Photography Club and the National Honor Society.