Group: Vt. conviction boosts gay parents' rights

August 15, 2012 - 8:43 PM

Civil Union Custody Dispute

Supporters of Rev. Kenneth Miller stand outside federal court in Burlington, Vt., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. The pastor from Virginia was convicted of helping a woman flee the country three years ago, when she was on the brink of having to turn custody of her young daughter over to the woman who was once her partner in a Vermont civil union. The jury issued its verdict against the Rev. Kenneth Miller after several hours of deliberations in the case, which has drawn broad attention because of the legal and religious questions it raised about same-sex unions and child custody, and because the mother and daughter remain at large. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The conviction of a Virginia pastor on charges he helped a woman flee the country rather than share custody of her child with her former lesbian partner did little to answer just where the girl and her mother are.

But one legal expert said Tuesday's conviction did succeed in reinforcing the legal rights of same-sex parents.

Gregory Nevins, an attorney with Lambda Legal, a national group that promotes the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people, said an acquittal might have sent the message that if "all of a sudden you want to cut off your partner and the other parent completely, go to Virginia, go to Alabama, go to some place that the courts will be hospitable to a claim like that."

Kenneth Miller was convicted of orchestrating the flight of Lisa Miller and her daughter, working with others to find them a new home in Central America. At the time of her 2009 disappearance, Lisa Miller was bound by a Vermont family court order that she give her former partner, Janet Jenkins, visitation with their daughter, Isabella Miller-Jenkins.

Lisa Miller, who isn't related to Kenneth Miller, and the now-10-year-old girl were last known to be in Nicaragua.

As the guilty verdict was being read against Kenneth Miller, of Stuarts Draft, Va., in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Jenkins' attorney filed a civil lawsuit against both Millers and a number of other groups and individuals alleged to have been involved in her flight. The suit alleges the Millers and the groups worked together to keep Isabella beyond the reach of Jenkins and asks for unspecified monetary damages.

"Janet's only objective is to get Isabella home safely," said Sarah Star, a lawyer for Jenkins. "Anything we're doing is for the purpose of putting pressure on people who know where she is and can help with her return."

Mathew Staver, the founder of the Liberty Counsel, the group that provided legal representation for Lisa Miller until her disappearance, said he was unsure the criminal case set any kind of precedent. Nevertheless, changing family structures are creating difficult new legal challenges, he said.

Staver is the dean of the Liberty University School of Law, one of the groups named in the lawsuit. He said the school hadn't yet been served with the lawsuit but called it "outrageous and frivolous and filled with misinformation and lies."

Kenneth Miller's attorney Brooks McArthur said, "We're working through it and we'll likely have an answer filed very soon."

Kenneth Miller, 46, is facing up to three years in prison. McArthur said a decision about whether to appeal his conviction would be made after sentencing, which has not been scheduled.

Jenkins and Lisa Miller were joined in a Vermont civil union in 2000 and Isabella was born to Lisa in 2002. The couple split up in 2003. The Vermont family court gave custody of Isabella to Lisa Miller, but gave Jenkins regular visitation.

Lisa Miller then returned to Virginia, became a conservative Christian, renounced homosexuality and sought full custody of the girl.

She and Isabella disappeared in September 2009, two months ahead of an expected decision by the Vermont family court to transfer custody to Jenkins because of Miller's continued refusal abide by the visitation orders.