All the excitement about health care and Russia last week hid a major lawsuit against much of Jerry Falwell’s empire. A RICO suit has added its law firm, Liberty Counsel, that has pushed the “religious liberty” argument in hundreds of cases throughout the United States. This particular suit alleges that organizations growing from Falwell’s ministry helped an “ex-lesbian” flee the country with her daughter to avoid an order allowing her former partner have visitation rights.
Lisa Miller, a member of Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, consistently flouted a court order permitting her former partner, Janet Jenkins, to visit their daughter Isabella in 2009. Vermont finally gave Jenkins sole custody that year, but Miller disappeared on the day she was to turn Isabella over to the legal parent. Investigations showed that Miller had taken Isabella to Canada and then to Nicaragua.
Jenkins filed a civil RICO suit in 2012, alleging that the Thomas Road Church and Liberty University’s law school worked with Miller in 2008 to make her plans to flee the court order by leaving the country. Mennonite ministers, Timothy Miller and Kenneth Miller (no relation to Lisa) and Christian direct-mail firm Response Unlimited, a company distributing anti-Semitic newspapers, helped Lisa take Isabella out of the United States in September 2009.
Response Unlimited’s president, Philip Zodhiates, made a number of calls to Liberty Counsel on the day Miller fled. A month after Lisa and Isabella’s disappearance, Zodhiates emailed his daughter with directions about paying for the lease on Lisa’s home and a list of items to “rescue.” He wrote, “There is someone that can deliver all or some of these items in the next couple of weeks. If it was already packed in suitcases that’d make it much easier for them to transport.” Several church elders helped pack her things and send them to Nicaragua although Liberty Counsel and its chairman, Mat Staver, also Liberty Law’s dean, insisted that Lisa had packed and left with their knowledge or anyone connected with them.
Zodhiates was charged with kidnapping in 2014 for driving Lisa and Isabella to Buffalo in 2009 and then convicted last September. He was sentenced to three years in prison last week. Earlier, Kenneth Miller was sentenced to 27 months in prison in 2012 but didn’t begin his sentence until last year after exhausting all appeals. Timothy Miller cooperated with authorities beginning in 2011 and was sentenced last week to time served in prison, eight months in both the U.S. and Nicaragua, and one year’s probation.
The court has now granted Jenkins’ request to add Liberty Counsel, Staver, and Lisa’s other lawyer Rena Lindevaldsen, law professor at Liberty University, to the RICO suit. Co-founder of Liberty Counsel, Staver is a leading anti-LGBT crusader. His 2004 book Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk describes homosexuality as a “destructive lifestyle” putting children at risk and the Boy Scouts a “playground for pedophiles.” To Staver, “the homosexual agenda” is “a direct assault on our religious freedom.” He has worked to criminalize gay sex and defended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore after Moore unsuccessfully defied a federal court order legalizing same-sex marriage.
As the face of Liberty Counsel, Staver has participated in defending Kim Davis, the county clerk refusing to allow same-gender couples marriage licenses; appealing California’s ban on conversion therapy; opposing legislation that would protect LGBT people from discrimination; and filing amicus briefs against same-gender marriage.
Liberty Law and Liberty Counsel have always contended that “ex-gay” parents have the responsibility to commit civil disobedience instead of complying with visitation orders although Staver insists he “never counseled Lisa Miller to disobey court orders.” Despite his denials, he has used the case to advance his opinions with highly questionable assertions in fundraising letters:
“I can’t recall a more emotionally charged legal case than the one involving Lisa Miller and her precious daughter Isabella. What makes it even more intense is the fact that every American family has a huge stake in its outcome. After reading this letter, you will see ‘homosexual activism’ in a whole new light.”
He also accused Jenkins of forcing Isabella to take baths with her, and other evangelicals have accused Jenkins of molesting her daughter.
Jenkins and Lisa Miller had a civil union in Vermont in 2000, three years after they started living together, and then had their daughter Isabella in 2002. The girl was born in Virginia, but the family moved back to Vermont soon after the daughter’s birth and lived there until the two women separated in 2003. Miller moved back to Virginia and declared herself a born-again Christian and no longer a lesbian. Court battles determined that Vermont had jurisdiction in determining child custody: Miller had primary custody, and Jenkins had visitation rights. Miller was repeatedly held in contempt in both states for failing to enable Jenkins’ court-ordered visitation, and Jenkins was granted custody to ensure that Isabella could have contact with both parents.
The loser in the case is Isabella, soon to turn 15 and prevented from seeing one of her parents for almost a decade. In 2012, the New York Times reported:
“Her time in Nicaragua has often been lonely, those who have met her say, long on prayer but isolated. She has been told that she could be wrenched from her mother if they are caught. She has also been told that the other woman she once called “Mama” … cannot go to heaven because she lives in sin.”
While the far-right falsely accuses a loving mother of molesting her young daughter, evangelical pastors and other far-right Christians are convicted of pedophilia. Maybe Jenkins’ case will free one young girl from the victimization that she has suffered for the past eight years.