Essay Contest
The annual Religious Liberty Essay Scholarship Contest engages high school students in church-state issues by directing them to express a point of view on a religious liberty topic.

We are now accepting entries for the 2023 contest! Scroll down for the topic and details.

Essays are judged on the depth of their content, mastery of the topic and the skill with which they are written. 

“I entered because it seemed like a very special type of scholarship. Most are more about what you are going to do with the money and more basic questions. This one asked something that sort of related to me, and I felt like I could share my voice and opinion.”

Yusra Ahmed
2017 Essay Contest Winner

Current Topic

2023 Essay Topic

Religions and cultures have places that are “sacred” to their traditions. For Indigenous peoples, specific land – which cannot be moved or replaced – is often sacred. In religious liberty law, there are some explicit legal protections specifically for buildings used for religious purposes (e.g. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Church Arson Prevention Act), but often our laws struggle to protect natural sanctuaries.

Using a controversy over Indigenous sacred land – such as the fight over the land known as “Oak Flat” – write an essay in the form of a letter addressed to your member of the House of Representatives about the importance of protecting sacred land.

Your essay should include a discussion of why you support preserving sacred land, what makes land “sacred,” how we should consider competing interests, and applicable federal law such as the First Amendment, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.


The contest is open to all high school students in the graduating classes of 2023 and 2024. There are no requirements regarding GPA, faith, after-school activities or clubs. Click here to read the full rules and details.

Grand Prize: $2,000 and a trip for two to Washington, D.C.
Second Prize: $1,000; Third Prize: $500

Submission & Due Date
Students with a Google Account can fill out this Google Form with essays (800-1200 words) uploaded within the form. If students do not have a Google Account, click here to access a fillable PDF form with instructions. Submissions must be completed no later than March 17, 2023.

Judging Criteria
Entries will be judged on the depth of their content, the mastery of the topic and the skill with which they are written. The student should develop a point of view on the issue and demonstrate critical thinking, using appropriate examples, arguments and other evidence to support their position. Essays should be free of grammatical errors and should be clear, concise and well-organized. Judges reserve the right to reduce the number of winners.


  1. Submitted essays should be in 12-point type, double-spaced. To ensure fairness, your name (or any other identifying info) should not appear on any page.
  2. Essays must have a title at the top of the first page of the essay (do not use a title page).
  3. Essays must be between 800-1,200 words, not counting the title and bibliography.
  4. Sources must be used, cited and credited in a bibliography, consistent with an accepted citation style. Wikipedia may not be used as a source.

Essays failing to meet the requirements will not be judged. All essays become property of BJC.

Winners will be announced by the end of summer 2023. The first-place winner will be recognized at the meeting of the BJC Board in October 2023. Entrants will hear from BJC by email after the winners are selected. For a complete list of rules, details and prizes, click here.

If you have questions, contact [email protected].

2022 Winners
Religious Liberty Essay Contest
Grand prize winner:
Bethany A. Crist
Greenbrier, Tennessee

Essay title: “Freedom in Both Life and Death”

Read more

In her essay titled “Freedom in Both Life and Death,” Bethany reviewed the First Amendment protections and the standards of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, applying them to recent cases to illustrate how prisoners do not lose their right to religious exercise absent a compelling governmental interest.

“Religion is important for people both in life and in death, so giving prisoners the peace they need at the end of their life is a basic freedom that I believe the Founding Fathers would have understood. … The United States has worked hard to ensure our rights are protected. If our nation has fought and died for us to live with our rights, why should we not let prisoners die with their rights as well?”

Religious Liberty Essay Contest
2nd prize:

Samantha Podnar
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Essay title: “Defending the Condemned”

Religious Liberty Essay Contest
3rd prize:

Caleb Asher McWhorter
Dawsonville, Georgia

Essay Title:  “The Transition Between the Living and the Dead”

Previous Contest Winners
Religious Liberty Essay Contest
“The clergy/candidate should also stress the fact that they consider their obligations to the elected office and to the constituents to be extremely important. These multiple obligations are not mutually exclusive and are very much like the multiple obligations that many candidates have to their family, their workplace, and the elected office.”
Grace C. Karanick / 2021 Grand Prize
Religious Liberty Essay Contest
“The word ‘we’ in ‘In God We Trust’ implicates all members of the school. A student’s logical conclusion when adults post such a message is that they must participate in this mutual faith in God to remain in their community, a reasonable feeling of coercion. … If students don’t ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,’ why should they lose their freedom of religion?”
Lorelei Loraine / 2020 Grand Prize
Religious Liberty Essay Contest
“To keep the political process in the United States as effective as possible, it is vital that the Johnson Amendment be protected in American law. As religious leaders promote the idea that politics and partisanship are not the same, it is my hope that young people become inspired to get involved in the political process …”
Natalia Barber / 2019 Grand Prize
Religious Liberty Essay Contest
“I like political science…. I also really like writing, so this essay contest is just perfect, tying everything that I like together…. I think it’s really wonderful that the Baptist tradition has a long history of supporting religious liberty and church-state separation…”
Lauralyn Lin / 2018 Grand Prize
Religious Liberty Essay Contest
“A religious test whose result determines eligibility for immigrants and refugees places irrational fear over compassion, the very same irrational fear I faced that day when I wore the hijab out with my sisters.”
Yusra Ahmed / 2017 Grand Prize
Religious Liberty Essay Contest
“One specific topic that is currently in the headlines is the right of government officials to opt out of certain job duties when those job duties conflict with their religious beliefs.”
Alyssa Bragg / 2016 Grand Prize
Religious Liberty Essay Contest
“Balance is key to keeping our country a free society: between private practices and public interaction, between private business and individual rights.”
Zoe Almeida / 2015 Grand Prize