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Secularists turn to GOP lobbyist to help push their cause

(RNS) The Secular Coalition for America's new leader is a Republican lobbyist who has worked for two Republican presidents and four Republican senators. Here's why she got the job. By Kimberly Winston.

RNS photo courtesy Secular Coalition of America

(RNS) Their issues are predominantly liberal and their constituency strongly leans Democratic, but a leading secularist group hopes a high-rolling Republican lobbyist is just who they need to open doors on Capitol Hill.

The Secular Coalition for America on Thursday (May 3) hired Edwina Rogers, who has worked for two Republican presidents and four Republican senators, as its new executive director. The SCA has 11 member groups — many of them officially at odds with Republican politicians and policies — including American Atheists and the American Humanist Association.

The Secular Coalition for America's new leader Edwina Rogers.

The Secular Coalition for America’s new leader Edwina Rogers.

The choice of a leader with strong ties to Republicans was a deliberate one, said SCA spokeswoman Lauren Anderson Youngblood.

“She can reach out to segments of the population that may be receptive to our message but maybe never heard of us before or maybe associated us with one particular political party,” Youngblood said. “She can help this organization grow beyond its traditional reach.”

Rogers, a native of Alabama and a graduate of Catholic University said she meets the SCA’s criteria for a leader – she is an experienced lobbyist, an attorney, and has experience building a national coalition, something the SCA is intent on doing among atheists, humanists and other secular-minded people.

“And if I happen to be strong in the conservative Republican movement where we have less inroads and allies, I think they saw that as a bonus and not as a negative,” she said.

And while Rogers herself is not a believer, she prefers to forgo labels as divisive. “You have to maintain neutrality in order to build a coalition,” she said.

Still, Rogers comes with a history. In 2008, she appeared on television wrapping gifts in sheets of real, uncut dollar bills, and in 2010 she appeared on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of D.C.” She has also made multiple appearances on Fox News to defend Republican policies.

Members of SCA’s search committee were aware of the baggage, and are willing to carry it.

“The initial response of the search committee was, no way, this is ridiculous,” said Woody Kaplan, a member of SCA’s search committee and himself a long-time lobbyist. “But then we thought about it and we decided she deserved some consideration for her superb credentials. And if she is willing to lobby on the issues, what the hell? That may give us more credibility, and in fact, she does. She represents us unequivocally.”

Rogers said she is excited to represent a secular agenda, which includes separation of church and state, abortion rights and education, among others. Until now, her resume has primarily included economic and health issues.

“The topic isn’t all that matters,” she said of lobbying. “What matters is that you are tenacious and you understand the process, that you get a fair hearing and you build up the coalition.”