Last year, we noted that Religious Right activist Philip Zodhiates had been convicted of international parental kidnapping for his role in helping a self-declared former lesbian named Lisa Miller kidnap the daughter she raised with her former partner and flee the country. In covering that news, we recounted the entire saga, which began back in 2009 and involved several anti-LGBTQ activists Mat Staver and Rena Lindevaldsen, as well as organizations like Liberty Counsel and Liberty University:
Back in 2009, we started covering the story of Lisa Miller, a self-declared former lesbian who had become a hero to the Religious Right for defying legal orders to allow her former partner, Janet Jenkins, to see their daughter. After the couple had separated, Miller had moved from Vermont to Virginia, where she joined Jerry Falwell’s church, renounced her homosexuality and then refused to allow Jenkins to see the daughter they had had together. During the legal battle, Miller was represented by Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver and lawyers affiliated with Liberty University, both of which are connected to Falwell’s church.
Eventually, due to her intransigence and refusal to follow visitation orders, a judge in Vermont ordered Miller to transfer custody to Jenkins, but Miller refused and disappeared with her daughter.
Anti-gay activists heaped praise upon Miller for defying the court order and absconding with her daughter, while Liberty Counsel immediately went silent and began to try and wash its hands of the case, insisting that it had no idea where Miller had gone and that it had nothing to do with her disappearance.
Eventually, it was discovered that Miller had fled the country and, according to an FBI affidavit, wound up at a home in Nicaragua owned by Philip Zodhiates, a Religious Right activist whose daughter just so happened to be an administrative assistant at Liberty University Law School, where Miller’s Liberty Counsel attorneys, Mat Staver and Rena Lindevaldsen, both worked. Even more amazingly, Miller’s attorneys reportedly just so happened to be teaching law students at Liberty University that Christian lawyers handling a case like Miller’s have a religious duty to counsel their client that they have an obligation to ignore the law and engage in “civil disobedience” in order to uphold God’s law.
In 2012, Liberty Law School was hit with a RICO lawsuit by Jenkins for allegedly playing a role in Miller’s kidnapping of their daughter, while Zodhiates was charged with conspiracy and international parental kidnapping in federal court.
The RICO suit mentioned had been placed on hold while criminal prosecutions against those involved were underway. But now that those proceedings are over, the court is allowing the case to move forward and, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reported yesterday, it has been expanded—based on information gathered during the criminal proceedings—to include Staver and Lindevaldsen as defendants:
Jenkins filed a lawsuit in 2012 against Miller and others who had conspired to assist in the kidnapping, but the case was put on hold in favor of criminal prosecutions against some of the conspirators. This fall, Jenkins, represented by Sarah Star, Esq. as well as attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP, asked the federal court in Vermont to lift the stay, and, in light of new evidence adduced through the criminal prosecutions, to permit them to name Liberty Counsel, Liberty University, as well as Liberty Counsel lawyers Mat Staver and Rena Lindevaldsen, as defendants. On Monday, the court issued a 61-page order granting that request and lifting the stay.
“I’m pleased that the court today expressly confirmed that the kidnapping was an affront to our client’s rights not just as a mother, but also as a former member of a same-sex couple whose rights the Constitution protects,” said Sarah Star, Esq., who also served as Ms. Jenkins’ attorney during the custody dispute. “The court acknowledged its obligation to protect those rights and to ensure that we can pursue Ms. Jenkins’ claims expeditiously, which we intend to do.”
“The court has given the green light to a full exploration of Liberty Counsel’s role in the kidnapping of Isabella, as well as the role of the Liberty Counsel lawyers,” said David Dinielli, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We are pleased the court recognized that our allegations suggested ‘significant wrongdoing’ by these lawyers, including Mat Staver, and we will move swiftly to learn more about their wrongdoing and to hold everyone involved in the kidnapping to account.”
“We are gratified that we can now move this case forward on behalf of our client Janet,” said Fritz Langrock, partner at Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP.