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Testimony begins in discrimination case

Testimony began Wednesday in trial of a lawsuit brought by a Charleston woman who claims she was fired by a West Side after-school program because of gender stereotyping.

Sam Sommerville, president of the board of directors at the Bob Burdette Center, was the first witness to testify in Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster's courtroom. He was called by the woman's attorney.   

Sommerville discussed how the board came to hire Jessica Hudson, 34, of Charleston in the summer of 2011 and how it came to terminate her days later.

Hudson alleges board members fired her days after hiring her as executive director because they perceived her to be a lesbian.

Rick Brown, her attorney, is arguing she was fired because she doesn't fit the board's beliefs on how a woman should behave.

Board members say she was fired because she misrepresented herself in her resume, claiming she was a college graduate and in a leadership position in Charleston Young Professionals.

Dave Mincer, the lawyer who is representing the center, asked the state Supreme Court to dismiss the lawsuit because sexual orientation is not protected under the state Human Rights Act, but the high court denied his petition.

Questioned Wednesday by Brown, Sommerville said Hudson was the only candidate presented for further review for the position of executive director.

Sommerville said he received her resume before meeting with her at a board meeting and went over the document but did not check into her references. He said one of the things that stood out to him was her involvement with Charleston Young Professionals.

He said the search committee, which presented Hudson as its "best candidate," also had not checked her references but other board members said during the meeting they had done so. He didn't go into further detail.

Hudson was interviewed during a board meeting and asked about several different topics. Sommerville said he asked her about social activities and leadership roles in her time at Concord University but never asked if she had graduated from the school or held any degrees. No degrees were mentioned on her resume.

He said no one asked her directly if she belonged to a church but she told the board she had prayed about her interview with another person. He said the Rev. Ron Stoner told the board after the meeting that Hudson had told him she attended Witcher Baptist Church.

The board then decided to offer her the position, Sommerville said, pointing out that some members wanted to make the offer as soon as possible.

Hudson gave her current employer two weeks' notice and began coming to the center to learn the ins and outs of the job. Sommerville said he emailed a copy of her resume to the board and other staff members to familiarize them with Hudson.

"I was anxious to get started with a new director," Sommerville said.

A short time later he received a phone call from Stoner, who said he had learned from a staffer named Juanita Garland that Hudson was in a relationship with another woman.

"He said his church wouldn't like it and neither would the other churches," Sommerville said.

Sommerville is a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church, where Stoner is pastor and said Stoner took a strong stance against homosexuality. He said Stoner didn't want Hudson to be the face of the Burdette Center if that was the case.

Sommerville said any person with a non-Christian lifestyle is not permitted to have a leadership role in the church and likely would not be voted in as a church member.

He said he told Stoner he would think and pray about the situation.

He said he received another phone call from Norm Cannada, another pastor involved with the Burdette Center, who said another staffer had called him to say they learned of Hudson's perceived homosexuality on her Facebook page.

Jean Cunningham, secretary of the Burdette board, also called Sommerville with concerns, saying she was concerned about her church and all of the churches involved with the Burdette Center.

"We operate rent free out of these churches," Sommerville said. "We couldn't run the center if we had to pay rent."

Sommerville then called Tim McClung, another board member, to inform him of the situation. McClung expressed concern over Hudson's possible termination in an email and told Sommerville that he had gay and lesbian friends and had mentored gay and lesbian teens.

"Here's an idea, let's pretend you're Jessica's parent," McClung wrote in an email to Sommerville, who responded in part "It's not that easy."

McClung told Sommerville if the board fired Hudson, he would resign from the board.

Sommerville said he then began checking into her references, calling the registrar's office at Concord, where he learned Hudson had not graduated. He also contacted members of Charleston Young Professionals, who he said told him she was a member but not in any leadership role.

He called a board meeting and drafted a termination letter the day before the meeting "to be prepared," he said.

Testimony will continue today. The trial is expected to resume at 8:30 a.m.  


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