In 2015, Liberty Counsel attorney Mathew Staver proudly held up Kim Davis’s hand in front of a Kentucky crowd after she had spent five days in jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Now, a Vermont court has allowed both Staver and the Florida-based evangelical law firm he founded to be named as defendants in a high-profile civil lawsuit related to an international kidnapping case.
The convoluted case began in the year 2000 when two Vermont women, Janet Jenkins and Lisa Miller, entered into a civil union. Two years later, Miller gave birth to their child, Isabella Jenkins-Miller, through artificial insemination.
But in 2003—as a 2009 CBS summary of the case noted—the couple split and Miller renounced lesbianism, became an evangelical Christian and took young Isabella with her to Virginia. Although Miller had sole custody, she started blocking Jenkins’s court-sanctioned visits, reportedly for religious reasons, which eventually prompted a Vermont court to grant Jenkins custody instead in November 2009. The Liberty Counsel had taken an active interest in the case, which had become a flashpoint in the culture war over same-sex couples, and Staver was one of Miller’s attorneys at the time.
The custody decision was upheld the next year by the state Supreme Court, which wrote: “We affirm the family court’s finding that Lisa had no justification for denying visitation to Janet.”
But by that time, Miller and Isabella were already gone. They are believed to be in Nicaragua, where The New York Times caught up with Isabella in 2012. Miller is still wanted by the FBI.
The full story of how Miller and Isabella got to Nicaragua is exactly what the Southern Poverty Law Center—now assisting in the legal representation of Jenkins—is hoping to uncover by naming Staver, Liberty Counsel, and a former Liberty Counsel attorney named Rena Lindevaldsen in a civil lawsuit, which had been put under a stay while a federal indictment connected to the case was underway.
“Now that it appears relatively clear that all of these parties were involved, it makes sense to join them,” David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director told The Daily Beast. “Because at this point, it’s hard to know exactly where the fault lies and who is most responsible for the injustice.”
The SPLC, an Alabama-based civil rights organization, considers Liberty Counsel to be an “anti-LGBT hate group” and, more specifically, “a legal organization advocating for anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.” Liberty Counsel describes itself as “an international litigation, education, and policy ministry.”
Dinielli told The Daily Beast that the new evidence in the case largely emerged through the criminal trial of Christian direct mail firm owner Philip Zodhiates, who has now been criminally sentenced for taking Isabella and Miller to the Canadian border in 2009. Vermont district court judge William Sessions allowed Liberty Counsel, Saver, and Lindevaldsen to be added to the civil case this Monday after Jenkins’s legal team put forward “substantial additional evidence gathered through Zodhiates’ criminal proceeding and in jurisdictional discovery,” according to the court order.
Specifically, Jenkins’s legal team alleged that Zodhiates sent a Liberty Counsel employee an email before the 2009 kidnapping suggesting that he had a “personal option” in case Miller were to lose custody, according to the Vermont court order (PDF) and an amended complaint obtained by The Daily Beast. They further alleged that Zodhiates “called a phone number used by Staver on the day that he transported Miller to the border to escape the country,” per the paraphrasing in the court order, and that Zodhiates contacted Lindevaldsen, who also represented Miller in the long-running custody case, through Lindevaldsen’s daughter.
The Vermont court order does not confirm these allegations but by allowing the civil case to move forward, discovery pertaining to them could now take place.
This Wednesday, as the Associated Press reported, Zodhiates himself was sentenced to three years in prison for international kidnapping and conspiracy, making him the third person to go to jail for the kidnapping scheme. The other two men, as the AP noted, are Timothy Miller (no relation), who entered a guilty plea after being accused of helping Lisa Miller connect with Mennonites in Nicaragua and Kenneth Miller (no relation to either Miller), a Mennonite pastor in Virginia who was convicted on an international kidnapping charge in 2012.
But both Staver and Lindevaldsen told The Daily Beast in written statements that they were not involved in the kidnapping plot.
“The evidence will show what we have maintained from the beginning—we had no knowledge of the disappearance of Lisa and Isabella Miller, or their plans to flee, and we have no knowledge of any plan of anyone to help them disappear,” wrote Staver.
According to Staver, Liberty Counsel lost contact with Miller in September 2009 after receiving a communication saying that she was interviewing for a job in Virginia. Staver further told The Daily Beast that they informed the Vermont court that she “was not responding to emails or phone calls,” and that they had “advised Lisa to obey the court orders” for the duration of their legal representation. Staver also stated that “we asked [the Vermont court] to withdraw from her case” once they had lost contact with Miller.
“We will aggressively defend this case and seek to have it dismissed because there is no evidence that we did anything wrong,” Staver’s statement concluded.
Lindevaldsen issued a similar denial to The Daily Beast: “I am surprised that these claims have been permitted to proceed. The allegations in the complaint are baseless and, through counsel, I intend to pursue all remedies available to have these claims dismissed.”
Lindevaldsen is a law professor at the Lynchburg, Virginia-based Liberty University, which, as of Monday, has also been added to the civil suit. The Vermont court order allowed Liberty University to be added to the lawsuit, persuaded by Jenkins’s argument that the school and Liberty Counsel “operated as a unified entity with respect to Lindevaldsen and Staver’s representation of Miller,” as the judge noted in Monday’s court order. Staver said in his written statement to The Daily Beast, however, that “Liberty Counsel and Liberty University are separate entities and the representation of Lisa Miller had nothing to do with Liberty University.”
Apart from defending Kim Davis, Liberty Counsel has waded into several other LGBT rights issues, such as appealing California’s ban on conversion therapy, opposing legislation that would protect LGBT people from discrimination, and filing amicus briefs against same-sex marriage. Because of these anti-LGBT stances, the SPLC will be especially interested in learning whether or not Staver and Liberty Counsel played a role in the kidnapping scheme.
“[Staver] is the face of Liberty Counsel and Liberty Counsel is one of the most ardent opponents of LGBT rights and equality and dignity, there’s no doubt about it,” said Dinielli. “So we do think it would be important to know exactly what role he played in this, what knowledge he had and whether he could have been in a position to stop it.”