It’s been amply established that the religious right has abdicated any claim to being the self-declared moral guardians of the nation by its continued support of Donald Trump. After all, they are willing to not only condone Trump’s outrages, but try to bludgeon his critics into silence simply because he has made the right clucking noises on social issues. In the process, they have made social issues a golden calf.
Well, we may have an even starker example of just how far some elements of the religious right are willing to go to protect that golden calf. On Tuesday, one of the religious right’s most prominent legal shops, Liberty Counsel–an arm of the ministry network founded by the late Jerry Falwell–was sued for its apparent role in helping an “ex-lesbian” flee the country rather than allow her former partner visitation with her daughter.
This saga began in 2003, when Lisa Miller broke off her three-year civil union with Janet Jenkins. They had been living together in southern Vermont, but Miller opted to move back to their home state of Virginia. A year earlier, Miller had given birth to a daughter, Isabella, by artificial insemination. She was allowed to retain primary custody of Isabella, and Jenkins was granted visitation–an agreement formalized when the civil union was formally dissolved in 2004.
By this time, Miller had become a Baptist fundamentalist and renounced her lesbian lifestyle. She also began disappearing with Isabella before Jenkins was due to arrive from Vermont. Eventually, Liberty Counsel took up her case. As this 2011 episode of Liberty Counsel’s radio show, “Faith and Freedom,” shows, they were just helping her fend off her same-sex attraction.
They helped her get a court order declaring her Isabella’s sole mother. However, in 2006, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act required Virginia courts to comply with the original Vermont family court ruling granting Jenkins visitation. That same Vermont court issued a final order in 2007 confirming Jenkins’ visitation rights.
By 2008, Miller had moved to Lynchburg and joined the church founded by Falwell, Thomas Road Baptist Church. She also took a job as a teacher at the church’s attached Christian school, Liberty Christian Academy. While she had allowed Jenkins visitation several times in 2007, she began flouting the court order in earnest when she moved to Lynchburg–without once providing any evidence that Jenkins was abusing Isabella. Finally, in November 2009, a Vermont judge lost patience and entered a default judgment awarding sole custody to Jenkins, effective New Year’s Day 2010.
However, on the appointed day, Miller and Isabella were nowhere to be found. While Liberty Counsel went into radio silence about it for a time, a number of fundie activists like Gordon Klingenschmitt and Peter Sprigg loudly supported her, saying she was just a mother defending her daughter. However, the story took another turn in June 2010, when Jenkins’ lawyers got word that Miller was in Central America.
In April 2011, the FBI arrested Mennonite pastor Timothy Miller–no relation to Lisa–for his involvement in what it was now calling Isabella’s kidnapping. At the same time, the FBI revealed it had tracked Miller to a vacation home in Nicaragua owned by Philip Zodhiates, the owner of a Christian direct mail firm and the father of an administrative assistant at Liberty University Law School. Timothy Miller realized he’d stepped in it, and began cooperating with the FBI.
That December, another Mennonite pastor, Kenneth Miller (no relation to Timothy or Lisa) was arrested for helping Lisa Miller flee to Nicaragua. He was convicted in 2012, and was sentenced to 27 months in prison–a sentence he finally began serving last spring after all appeals were exhausted.
On the same day that Kenneth Miller was convicted, Jenkins filed a massive RICO suit in Vermont federal court alleging that Liberty Law, TRBC, Zodahites, Kenneth Miller, Timothy Miller, and others helped Lisa Miller flee to Canada in 2009 and eventually make her way to Nicaragua. Read the complaint here. It contended that several TRBC elders helped Lisa pack, and that Zodahites made a number of calls to Liberty Counsel on the day Lisa Miller bolted for Canada.
The RICO suit was placed on hold after Zodahites was charged with kidnapping–specifically, for driving Miller and Isabella to Buffalo in September 2009. From there, Miller took Isabella to Canada, en route to Nicaragua. He was convicted in September, and earlier this week was sentenced to three years in prison. On the strength of information gleaned at Zodahites’ trial, Jenkins and the Southern Poverty Law Center persuaded the Vermont federal court to add Liberty Counsel, as well as Miller’s former lawyers, Mat Staver and Rena Lindevaldsen, as defendants in the RICO suit. Read the court ruling here.
Jenkins contends that Lindevaldsen blatantly lied about not knowing where Miller was. Rather, she kept in constant touch with Zodahites about the situation right up to the day Zodahites drove Miller to the Canadian border. She also reportedly joined a number of others in going to Miller’s apartment in Forest, near Lynchburg, to get Miller’s belongings after she fled to Canada. The court found that Staver, who is both chairman of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty Law School, is “implicate(d) in the commission of the alleged torts” since he was Lindevaldsen’s superior. Jenkins’ legal team also alleges that Miller fled Nicaragua on specific advice from Liberty Counsel.
If there is anything at all to this, then it goes without saying that Jenkins could potentially drive the entire Falwell ministry complex out of existence. Liberty Law, and other religious right outfits, actually contended that Miller had the right to engage in civil disobedience rather than comply with the visitation order. But Jenkins contends that Liberty Law, TRBC, Staver, and Lindevaldsen went well beyond that–to actually being accomplices in a kidnapping. Unless they have evidence that Jenkins abused Isabella–and so far, no such evidence has emerged–this could potentially be the beginning of the end for one of the pillars of the religious right. In this case, it would be better late than never.
(featured image courtesy Deborah Thomas, part of public domain)