A.J. Johnson, former director of development of American Atheists, is suing the national nonprofit for alleged racial discrimination and wrongful termination, according to a suit filed in New Jersey on May 2nd. Johnson was fired last September in spite of positive performance evaluations. She had distinguished herself as one of the chief organizers of the successful Reason Rally, many conference and media appearances including the programs The Young Turks and RT TV. Johnson also hired Amanda Knief and Teresa Macbain. It isn’t clear what cause American Atheists had for her termination.
EDIT: American Atheists has posted a reply at this url: news.atheists.org/2013/06/17/johnson-response/
Discrimination and wrongful termination
The suit alleges that Johnson was “forced to listen to various racial jokes and was subjected to unprovoked, unwarranted, vicious and persistent verbal attacks on everything, including her competence.” It claims “unfounded complaints” against her competence and that this was in spite of excellent performance, citing “dramatically” increased donations which it was her job to solicit. It also indicates that Johnson, the sole African-American employee of American Atheists at the time, was “forced to support” a billboard stating “Slaves obey your masters” which she expressly disapproved of. The billboard caused controversy earlier this year when leaders of the NAACP and others called it “offensive and racially charged”. Further, it is alleged that Johnson was replaced with a less qualified person who is not a minority.
The filing seeks redress for wrongful termination under a New Jersey whistle-blower protection law which applies to employees suffering retaliation for objecting to a policy or practice that they “reasonably believe is a violation of the law, or a rule or regulation promulgated, pursuant to law.” The suit alleges that Johnson confronted American Atheists president David Silverman in June of 2012 about “what she believed to be evidence of him using organizational funds for personal trips.”
American Atheists has filed a reply to the lawsuit, however as of the time of this writing a copy of that reply has not been received.
Johnson’s firing from American Atheists is just one of a rash of recent departures featuring unusual circumstances. Teresa MacBain moved on to join a smaller organization after just 6 months as public relations director. Other employees have left suddenly or under less-than-amicable circumstances. For example, Bridget Gaudette was allegedly dismissed as Florida state director for her involvement in Secular Woman, an organization seeking to “amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women”. Silverman claimed that Gaudette’s involvement represented a conflict of interest. Gaudette and Johnson had protested the firing, calling it unfair. Many organizations like American Atheists have policies restricting possible conflicts of interest, but application of this rule by American Atheists appears inconsistent. Amanda Knief is both managing director to American Atheists and also sits on the American Humanists Association board of directors. Zachary Bos is American Atheists state director for Massachusetts as well as co-chair of the Secular Coalition for America’s Massachusetts branch.
Other departures include American Atheists’ director of Outreach Blair Scott who resigned in December citing “infighting: at every level” within the atheist movement. [Edit: Blair Scott remains on the board of directors of American Atheists and remains a supporter of the organization, as he articulated in this podcast around minute 39] Kentucky state director Ed Hensley also quit suddenly, and rumors suggest he was discontented with American Atheists. Hensley has not commented publicly* about leaving American Atheists, but this list represents a significant amount of talent departing American Atheists in a relatively short time. It might also represent a different sort of loss.
Last July, Silverman boasted that since he became the president of American Atheists, “every hire and board appointment” has been a woman. This is no longer the case. The organization appears to be losing gender, sexual, and racial diversity. African-American former employee of American Atheists A.J. Johnson and former state director Bridget Gaudette have both been replaced with white men. According to their website, Nick Fish has officially taken over as development director and Ken Loukinen (erstwhile director of state/regional operations) and John Porgal are now the two Florida state directors as well. American Atheists hired Dave Muscato to replace Teresa MacBain, leaving just one woman among its national directors.
Supporting secular women
The lawsuit comes at an unexpected time, as David Silverman has recently received kudos from some members of the secular community for supporting secular women and feminist ideals. One blogger has called him the “Golden man for Secularism and Feminism”, stating that Silverman has shown leadership by “standing with women as allies”. At least one recent event may cast some doubt on American Atheists’ commitment to supporting and empowering female leaders in the secular community.
American Atheists is making national headlines with its announcement that it will erect an atheist monument at a Florida courthouse later this month as part of the settlement of a lawsuit. That suit was filed in protest of a 10 commandments monument at the same courthouse, which will remain there. According to Digital Journal coverage, the original protest and lawsuit effort were lead by Bridget Gaudette. The new monument will be dedicated later this month, but the official event page makes no mention of Gaudette, who would have been expected to at least be listed among those present if not speaking herself. Since Gaudette is no longer an employee, it is reasonable to assume that her omission was not intentional, but discussion following news of the dedication ceremony revealed that she had asked American Atheists for acknowledgement and was denied.
While Gaudette is no longer with American Atheists, she remains a leader in the secular community and without her there would be no atheist monument. It is not clear why American Atheists’ “golden man for secularism and feminism” explicitly denied her the support and credit for her efforts.
* Since publishing, Hensley has responded (see comments) and has said that he was not and is not discontented with the organization.
Readers are reminded that allegations should not be presumed to be true (or false). The opinions and attitudes of individuals mentioned here are not necessarily those of myself or the Skeptic Ink Network. A rebuttal or reply from American Atheists will be printed in this space if they so desire, provide such is consistent with Skeptic Ink discourse standards.