Liberty University and the religious liberties organization Liberty Counsel have been named in a revived parental kidnapping lawsuit that had been placed on hold while one of the defendants in the case was on trial.
“We were surprised to learn that we’ve [been] brought back into a case that we’ve previously been dismissed out of,” David Corry, general counsel for Liberty University, told The News & Advance.
Janet Jenkins had originally filed the RICO lawsuit in 2012, but it was paused until after the trial of Philip Zodhiates, a Virginia businessman accused of driving Jenkins’ former partner, Lisa Miller, to New York State, where she and her daugher Isabella soon traveled into Canada and then flew to Nicaragua to go into hiding.
As Zodhiates was found guilty last September, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions allowed the case to move forward on Monday, and with an expanded listing of defendants. (Read the order here.) Liberty University had been dismissed from the case in 2013, but was re-listed in part due to alleged involvement by law professor Rena Lindevaldsen, who also works with Liberty Counsel.
“[Plaintiffs] seek to join Liberty University, an institution that the court had previously dismissed from the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, arguing that the evidence adduced at Zodhiates’ trial and in discovery so far provides new grounds for a different jurisdictional ruling,” the suit states.
However, Liberty University and Liberty Counsel dispute that they are affiliated with one another and state that the university itself had nothing to do with the matter. Liberty Counsel Founder Mat Staver is also named in the suit as “Plaintiffs assert that Zodhiates was in contact with both Lindevaldsen and Staver on the day that he drove Miller to the border in order to flee the country.”
“Lindevaldsen and Staver, Miller’s attorneys during her custody dispute, were both personally involved in Miller’s efforts to leave the country in order to avoid a Vermont court’s orders, and that they acted on behalf of both Liberty University and Liberty Counsel in doing so,” it claims.
Staver denies the allegations, and says he was not aware that Miller was planning on fleeing the country.
“Anyone can make any allegation, and that’s what this complaint does; it makes absolutely outlandish allegations that are completely false,” he told reporters last week. “We had no knowledge, we had no information, and at the end of the day, that’s what we’ll present. And at the end of the day, there’s nothing that would show otherwise.”
As previously reported, Miller, who had previously been in a civil union with Jenkins, was granted complete custody of her child by the courts when the two legally split, but Jenkins was allowed visits with the girl. Miller, who became a Christian following the separation, soon sought to discontinue contact as she did not want her child around the homosexual lifestyle since she had turned from lesbianism and was now raising her child in the ways of the Lord.
Jenkins has said that she is determined to do “anything and everything” to get the child, now 14, back. Jenkins has moved on to “marry” another woman, and they raise a two-year-old together.
The situation began in 2000, when Lisa Miller joined in a civil union with lesbian Janet Jenkins in the state of Vermont, one of the few states that allowed homosexual arrangements at the time. Following an artificial insemination procedure from a male sperm donor, Miller gave birth to a girl, named Isabella, in 2002.
But Miller said she had concern even then.
“There were numerous incidents of Janet going to [the Internet] and putting up naked women on the screen saver, and I would ask her to please change it,” Lisa later told the court, according to the Washington Post.
“I don’t have clean hands, either. Previously, before … the baby was born, [pornography] was used in our relationship,” she said. “When we moved to Vermont, Isabella was 4 months old, and I said this stuff has to go … There’s a baby in this house now. I don’t want that.”
In 2003, Miller and Jenkins split over continued tension in their relationship, part of which involved the miscarriage of Miller’s second pregnancy, and Miller moved to Virginia. She renounced her involvement in homosexuality and reportedly turned to Jesus Christ to be born again.
“It wasn’t a struggle,” she recalled of walking away from the homosexual lifestyle. “I felt peace.”
When the civil union between Miller and Jenkins was officially dissolved, the court gave custody to Miller, while also granting visitation rights to Jenkins.
While Miller did allow Isabella to spend time with Jenkins for a while, she reportedly became concerned at the information that her daughter was providing to her following the visitations.
Later, Miller claimed in affidavits that the visits were causing great trauma to Isabella. She claimed that at six years old, the girl was forced to take baths together with Jenkins, and that the girl was openly touching herself inappropriately. She also stated that Isabella was withdrawn and talked about suicide at times.
“Isabella came home and said, ‘Mommy, will you please tell Janet that I don’t have to take a bath anymore at her house,’” Miller told reporters in 2008. “I asked her what happened. She said, ‘Janet took a bath with me.’ I asked her if she had a bathing suit on. ‘No, Mommy.’ She had no clothes on and it totally scared Isabella. She had never seen this woman except once in 2 ½ years and she takes a bath with her.”
“Last year, Isabella put a comb up to her neck and said she wanted to kill herself after one of the visits,” she outlined. “She took a comb and pressed it into her neck and said, ‘I want to kill myself.’ I don’t know where she got that. It was immediately after a visit. Other people have seen huge changes.”
Miller then filed for exclusive custody of Isabella, and the court agreed. She told the Washington Post, “I don’t see Janet as a parent, first and foremost. Secondly, I don’t want to expose Isabella to Janet’s lifestyle. It goes against all my beliefs. I am raising Isabella to pattern herself after Christ. That’s my job as a Christian mom. Homosexuality is a sin.”
However, Jenkins fought the ruling all the way up to the Virginia Supreme Court, which in 2008, ruled in favor of granting Miller’s former lesbian partner visitation rights. Miller refused.
The following year, family court judge Richard Cohen warned Miller that she must allow Isabella to visit Jenkins and threatened that if she did not do so, he would transfer full custody to Jenkins. In November 2009, Cohen followed through with his threats and ordered Miller to hand the child over to Jenkins.
However, Miller had fled the country with Isabella before he issued the transfer order, and for some time, none knew the whereabouts of the two. It was later discovered that they had fled to Nicaragua via the help of a number of Mennonite Christians and their contacts.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is known for classifying a number of Christian organizations as “hate groups,” is assisting Jenkins with the civil suit.
“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,” Deputy Legal Director David Dinielli said in a statement. “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.”