For Immediate Release: September 27, 2017
Media contact: Ilana Ostrin/ [email protected] / Office:  202-544-4226

WASHINGTON — Three students have earned scholarships as winners of a national essay contest sponsored by the Religious Liberty Council of the Washington, D.C.-based Baptist Joint Committee. This year’s Religious Liberty Essay Scholarship Contest asked students to explore the idea of using religious tests as part of the United States’ immigration and refugee policies. The contest and its topic were announced last fall, and it was open to high school juniors and seniors. Yusra Ahmed of Quincy, Mass., won first place; Nicholas Sickels of Lawrence, Kan., earned the second prize; and Margaret Lawrence of Roanoke, Va., earned third place. All received scholarship money for their work.

In her winning essay, titled, “Compassion Before Fear,” Ahmed told a personal story of facing religious discrimination as a Muslim American. “A religious test whose result determines eligibility for immigrants and refugees places irrational fear over compassion,” she wrote.

Sickels’ second-place essay, titled “The Unconstitutionality of a Religious Test,” detailed the reasons why America should disallow religious tests. “Any faith-based test … gives the government the power to decide when civil liberties do and do not apply to a group of people, which impacts everyone, citizen and non-citizen,” he wrote.

Lawrence’s third-place essay, “A Constitutional Question, A Moral Dilemma,” noted the “vital” importance of speaking out for others regardless of differences in religious affiliation. “While it may be comfortable for some to accept government implementation that does not directly concern them, it is with apathy that the greatest consequences occur, for there will be no one left to speak on behalf of [y]our own religion if the time comes,” she wrote.

Since 2006, the Religious Liberty Essay Scholarship Contest has engaged high school students in church-state issues. The 2017 contest received nearly 620 entries from students across the country. A panel of judges issued scores based on the content and mastery of each essay. The three winners received scholarship funds: Ahmed received a $2,000 scholarship for her winning essay and a trip to Washington, D.C; Sickles received a $1,000 scholarship, and Lawrence received a $500 scholarship. For more information, visit


The Baptist Joint Committee is an 81-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government. Learn more at