2nd place: Grad student essay contest — Devin Vertrees 

Devin Vertrees

FFRF awarded Devin $3,000.

By Devin Vertrees 

I first witnessed the dangers of religious extremism as a young child raised in a private Catholic school. In fourth grade, our jovial principal known for his kindness and fairness was fired over rumors of a homosexual relationship and was replaced by a domineering disciplinarian hellbent on stifling free thought in the pursuit of “religious redemption.” 

Where our original principal cared about fostering community and learning, his replacement cared little about our well-being or education. Instead, she singularly focused on “atoning for our original sin” and achieving “religious enlightenment,” in effect, punishing children for things they had not done. This obviously negates the American principle of justice and imparts on impressionable young children that they are inherently bad. Even worse, if any of the children I attended school with were questioning their sexuality, they would have been shown that expressing their true selves was unacceptable.

I saw that religious extremism led parents and faculty to make decisions not in the best interest of the students, but, rather, in support of some ridiculous religious dogma. The negative impacts of this religious extremism on the lives of scores of impressionable children passing through this school cannot be overstated as it undermined our sense of justice, fairness and individual rights to privacy — core principles of American society. 

In the years since, examples of the danger of religious (and particularly Christian) extremism have arisen again and again. I grew up down the street from Masterpiece Cakeshop, the bakery at the center of a contentious Supreme Court case regarding its refusal to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple based on their Catholic beliefs. This case divided my hometown while I was in high school and college as neighbors denounced neighbors and the baker proclaimed his “God-given right” to deny this couple’s humanity. I was struck that religious beliefs in this country could be so pervasive as to affect things as simple as confectionaries.

I felt that we, as a society, had completely lost the plot when a cake could be perceived as threat to these Christians’ way of life. It seemed rather obvious to me that religious extremism was the real threat when it interfered with this couple’s civil rights. Religious extremism yet again tore at the fabric of American society as this baker’s personal beliefs superseded the tenets of America’s guaranteed rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

And now, as a woman in my mid-20s, Christian extremists continually express and enforce opinions about my body and my ability to obtain contraception and an abortion. Somehow, the religious extremists in power, predominantly white men, are able to exert power over what happens with my body. Women are denied healthcare every day in this country in yet another example of religion superseding our right to life and liberty.

Indeed, many women, including myself, require contraception for the treatment of medical conditions. The regulation of these treatments by religious extremists has tangible impacts on my health and well-being. This is perhaps the most egregious example of religious extremism (and religion in general) interfering with American principles. The thought that some perfect stranger’s religious beliefs holds weight over my medical treatment obliterates my bodily autonomy. This runs counter to everything this country stands for, including religious freedom. This precludes my right to life and liberty, and the right to live according to my specific religious (or anti-religious) principles and not those of extremists. The common factor of all these examples and experiences, some of which have had an indelible effect on the country, is that religious extremists believe their tenets come before others’ individual rights. This makes religious extremism a threat to the most significant American principles, the ones upon which this country was founded. We must resist this threat as this society values individual freedom and autonomy above all. This country was founded on the belief that governance and religion should be wholly removed from each other, and it is our duty to sustain this separation. A society built on the foundation of secularism is one that respects individual rights — perhaps the cornerstone of this country’s founding. Nothing could be more patriotic, then, than freedom from religion and the centering of the rights of the individual. 

Devin, 26, attends Johns Hopkins University, where she started a master’s program in biotechnology. “I spent four years working as a microbiologist following my graduation from the University of Denver,” she writes. “I hope to go on to do research in developing vaccines and understanding infectious diseases.”