Just over two years ago, the Secular Coalition for America — the largest lobbying group in Washington, D.C. representing non-religious Americans — announced that its new Executive Director would be a Republican who had worked under President George W. Bush and conservative senators Trent Lott and Jeff Sessions.
Despite Edwina Rogers‘ claim that her focus was always on health and economic issues with those politicians, her GOP background rubbed a lot of atheist activists the wrong way. They wondered if someone who had worked for social conservatives could really be a reliable voice for Secular Americans. Rogers was optimistic that her background wouldn’t hinder her new position — in fact, she believed she could get her foot in the door in places where liberal lobbyists might have been shut out. Still, my initial interview with her provoked a lot of skeptical (and harsh) feedback from readers and other bloggers. (Her more recent interview with me, last month, hardly made any waves at all.)
Today, Laurie Goodstein and Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times broke the news that Rogers was fired by the SCA last week.
Ms. Rogers said in an interview that she was given no warning and no reason for her termination, but suspects that she is being blamed for organization funds discovered to be missing and allegedly embezzled by two of her subordinates. An internal audit, obtained by The New York Times, found that two employees who handled the Secular Coalition’s finances embezzled $78,805, mostly by using the coalition’s credit cards to pay for restaurant meals, travel and plastic surgery. Ms. Rogers said she discovered the misuse of funds, reported it to the police, fired the two employees and commissioned the audit with the approval of the board.
Just to be clear, her conservative background is not an issue here, at least not publicly. Presumably, her downfall was her inability to see what was going on right under her nose. The amount stolen would undoubtedly make donors wary of giving to the organization, despite its successes. Not a good sign right on the eve of its major Lobby Day event.
“I can be a good and generous friend, or I can be a very effective adversary,” wrote one major donor, Lloyd S. Rubin, in an email to board members and the heads of member organizations last week.
Still, why Rogers was given the axe when she was the one who reported the wrongdoing is a question that’s currently unanswered.
Rogers thinks the anti-Republican sentiment played a role in the decision, though the SCA’s board says otherwise:
She said in an interview that such animus was a “big factor” in her dismissal.
[Several coalition board members and organizers] said the reasons were far more pedestrian: that she and board members differed over priorities, and that she initiated projects and raised money for endeavors that competed with member organizations.
For what it’s worth, when I was on the SCA’s board several years ago, we raised the same concern — that the SCA was going to raise money that might take funds away from member groups. I don’t know why Rogers would be blamed for a dilemma that’s been around since the group’s founding, unless it’s gotten worse in the years since I left.
Rogers was the group’s third Executive Director since its founding in 2005, following in the footsteps of Lori Lipman Brown who stepped down in 2009 and Sean Faircloth, who left the SCA to join the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS).
Her image has already been removed from the SCA’s website and no replacement has been named.
So what happens now?
Some atheists will surely be delighted by the decision, even if they have no reason to dislike Rogers. I don’t believe for a moment she gave us any reason to doubt her loyalties to the cause, but Rogers was never embraced by the larger community of atheists. They just didn’t trust a Republican, especially one who had strong ties to conservative Christian politicians.
It’s another blow to the gender diversity in our movement. Everyone can name prominent atheist men (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc.)… but Rogers was on the shortlist of high-profile women in the secular world. The SCA let her go and we really don’t know why that happened. It doesn’t make our side look good. I guess it’s a good thing Rogers was a Republican, because gender will now become a peripheral issue.
Will the SCA consider hiring another Republican? I doubt it. It was a fun experiment while it lasted but we’re done with that now. The board members will say they have no problem with GOP candidates for the position and that they’re interested in anyone who can promote the secular cause regardless of political affiliation, but I’m going to bet they’ll have an easier time raising money if they hire someone who has liberal bona fides.
The SCA, I’m sure, wants to hire someone who has political experience. Even better if that person happens to be a non-theist. And more power to everyone if that person is a Democrat.
And there’s one person who would fit that bill perfectly.
There’s my prediction for you. I have no insider knowledge here, but I’m guessing the SCA will go hard after former Congressman Barney Frank. It would be a major coup and a way to put Rogers’ abrupt dismissal behind them.
***Update***: Late Friday night, the SCA issued this very brief statement (that’s also void of all emotion):
The Secular Coalition for America today announced that Edwina Rogers has moved on from her role as Executive Director. The Coalition thanks Rogers for her service as Executive Director. Rogers served as the Executive Director of the Secular Coalition since May of 2012.
(Portions of this article have been posted before.)