On Tuesday, an Amish-Mennonite pastor was found guilty of abetting international kidnapping, and on the same day a lawsuit was filed against him and several organizations that allegedly conspired to make the crime happen. Among those who are named as defendants in the suit are the Liberty University School of Law and Thomas Road Baptist Church, which is led by Senior Pastor Jonathan Falwell.
A federal jury in Burlington, Vt., found Kenneth L. Miller guilty of abetting international parental kidnapping after he helped a woman flee the U.S. with her daughter in order to avoid sending the daughter on court-ordered visits with the woman's former lesbian partner.
Now Miller, who was convicted of helping Lisa A. Miller (no relation) flee to Nicaragua with her daughter, Isabella Miller-Jenkings, in 2009, could face a sentence of up to three years in prison, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Lisa had her daughter via artificial insemination when she was still in a civil union with her former partner, Janet Jenkins of Vermont. Lisa became a Christian after the couple split and began believing that homosexual behavior is a sin. Although she was given custody of Isabella and moved to Virginia, a court gave some visitation rights to Jenkins.
Lisa allegedly began defying the court order after a while, though, because she claimed her daughter experienced "violent reactions" from spending time with Jenkins. Lisa said Jenkins didn't want Isabella raised in a Christian home, and even accused her former partner of forcing Isabella to bathe with her.
After Lisa allegedly denied Jenkins the opportunity to see Isabella on several occasions, the Rutland Family Court decided to give Jenkins full custody of Isabella in November 2009. The custody change didn't go into effect until Jan. 1, 2010, however, and Lisa fled with Isabella before that time.
A related civil suit was filed by Jenkins on Tuesday against Kenneth, along with a number of other organizations and individuals who allegedly conspired to help Lisa. Among the defendants in the suit is the Liberty University School of Law.
Mathew Staver, dean of the school, once served as Lisa's attorney alongside Rena Lindevaldsen. Both attorneys allegedly "routinely instructed their Law School students that the correct course of action for a person in Lisa Miller's situation would be to engage in 'civil disobedience' and defy court orders," the suit claims.
Victoria Hyden (formerly Victoria Zodhiates), who was an assistant for the law school, is the daughter of Philip Zodhiates, who allegedly conspired with Kenneth and drove Lisa and Isabella to Canada as a part of their escape.
During Kenneth's criminal trial, U.S. attorneys shared phone records showing Zodhiates called a line belonging to the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal organization founded by Staver, on his way back to Virginia from Canada. Staver told the Times that the number he called is a widely circulated public relations office number, and said he had no knowledge of Lisa's flight and never spoke with Zodhiates about her case.
The suit also alleges that the elders of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., packed up Lisa's personal belongings for her in November 2009. Later, these belongings were allegedly picked up by Zodhiates, who arranged to have them transported to Nicaragua.
The suit also points out Falwell's support of The Manhattan Declaration, a document which says, in part, that Christians will not "bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent."
In addition to Liberty University Law School and Thomas Road Baptist Church, Response Unlimited (a company owned by Zodhiates), Christian Aid Ministries and several individuals are being accused of conspiring with Kenneth to help Lisa flee the country with Isabella.
"The lawsuit is outrageously frivolous," Staver told The Christian Post on Wednesday. "It's filled with lies, misinformation. It is frivolous."
Staver described the complaint as a "glorified press release" and says his organization never encouraged Lisa to do an act of civil disobedience.
"No, and I've said that from the beginning. And they have no evidence to suggest that. And for someone to place that kind of an allegation in a complaint is just shocking because it's absolutely frivolous. It has no basis at all," he said.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking damages and a court order demanding that the defendants return Isabella to the U.S. and cease any unlawful activities.
As far as Kenneth is concerned, he has been stripped of his passport but is still a free man at the moment. After exiting the trial on Tuesday he joined more than 100 supporters from the Beach Amish-Mennonite sect who had been singing hymns together while waiting for him to emerge.
"We are of course disappointed, but with the grace of God and by his help, we will bear the consequences," Kenneth said after joining his supporters, the Times reports.
During the trial, according to the Times, the pastor's attorney, Joshua M. Autry, did not deny that his client had helped Lisa and Isabella escape to Nicaragua to be sheltered by missionaries. He did claim, however, that Kenneth did not know at the time that he was defying court orders by doing so.