Liberty University has been dismissed from a civil case that involved an international kidnapping and a same-sex civil union that spawned a long-running, cross-state court battle.
Plaintiffs in the case claimed LU had conspired with others to plot the 2009 kidnapping. LU was dismissed from the case last week after being added as a co-defendant in March 2017.
The case, Janet Jenkins v. Kenneth Miller and others, spawned from a custody battle that began in 2004 following the separation of Janet Jenkins and Lisa Miller, who entered a civil union in Vermont before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide by a 2015 Supreme Court decision.
In 2002, the couple conceived a child, Isabella Miller-Jenkins, through artificial insemination.
Miller later converted to Christianity, left the lesbian lifestyle, and moved to Virginia. She lived in Forest with her daughter and tried to prevent Jenkins from seeing the child, ultimately leading to a custody battle as the couple dissolved their civil union. After a Vermont judge granted visitation rights to Jenkins, Miller fled the country with the child.
It was during the custody battle that individuals working for LU became involved. Miller was represented by Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm that focuses on family issues. Liberty Counsel was founded by Mathew Staver, a former dean of the LU law school. Rena Lindevaldsen, a current LU law professor, represented Miller in the custody battle. Liberty Counsel and Lindevaldsen remain defendants in the civil case.
On Tuesday Staver said he was dismissed from the case last year, but remains involved through his role as chairman of Liberty Counsel.
Staver denied involvement with Miller’s disappearance and called the lawsuit frivolous.
“We had no idea; still have no idea about Lisa Miller's disappearance, other than what we read in the court filings. We had nothing to do with it,” Staver said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We always told her during the time she was a client to obey the court orders.”
The civil case originally was filed in 2012 but was delayed as criminal proceedings played out.
In March of 2017, Philip Zodhiates, a Waynesboro businessman was sentenced to three years in prison for smuggling Miller and her then 7-year-old daughter to Canada. From there Miller fled to Nicaragua. Zodhiates’ sentencing cleared the way for the civil case to proceed.
According to the case filed against them, Staver and Lindevaldsen were in contact with Zodhiates on the day he helped Miller flee the country with Isabella Miller-Jenkins in tow.
“The University may have made its views public with respect to same-sex relationships, and even supported Lisa Miller’s position in litigation. Nonetheless, conspiring to kidnap a child and remove her from the country was not incidental to or in the nature of the work that these defendants were hired to perform,” Judge William Sessions wrote in his dismissal order issued Aug. 29.
“The University appreciates Judge Sessions’ willingness to reconsider his earlier ruling and recognize that there was no legal basis for the suit against the University,” said David Corry, general counsel for Liberty University, in a news release issued Friday evening.
In an email, Corry said the legal argument made by the university involved technical elements of law regarding “when an employer can be held liable for actions of its employees.”
In his explanation for dismissing LU from the case, Sessions wrote the plaintiffs offered “no evidence that the University controlled the alleged conspiratorial acts” of the kidnapping. Sessions added LU had no control over legal representation provided by Liberty Counsel, despite employing Lindevaldsen and Staver, and being loosely tied to the legal nonprofit based in Orlando.
Though LU and Liberty Counsel claim no formal relationship, students have interned for the nonprofit in the past, and the university has provided space for Liberty Counsel operations.
“Despite the similarities in name, Liberty Counsel was founded in Florida in 1989 separate and apart from Liberty University and did not begin the relationship with Liberty University until the start of the Law School in 2004,” Corry said in an email.
The civil case brought against 16 defendants included the LU Law School, which was dismissed from the case in 2012, and Thomas Road Baptist Church, which was dismissed in 2013.