By Jason McLure
BURLINGTON, Vermont (Reuters) - A Mennonite minister testified on Wednesday at the start of a custodial kidnapping trial that he agreed to help a woman who split with her lesbian partner and ran away with their daughter because she renounced her homosexuality.
The trial of Kenneth Miller, underway in District Court in Burlington, has ignited debate about gay marriage and laws aimed at protecting parental rights of gays and lesbians.
Miller, a Mennonite minister from Virginia, faces up to three years in prison on a charge of aiding and abetting the international kidnapping of Isabella Miller-Jenkins, now 10, by one of her mothers.
Lisa Miller, who is not related to the minister, was indicted on international kidnapping charges in 2010 but federal agents have been unable to locate her or Isabella since they were left at an airport in Toronto in 2009 to board a series flights bound for Nicaragua. They fled just before a Vermont court was to order primary custody granted to Janet Jenkins, with whom Miller had joined in civil union in Vermont in 2000. Miller later embraced conservative Christian ideals and renounced homosexuality.
They were driven to the airport by Mennonite minister Ervin Horst of Ontario, Canada, who testified at the start of Kenneth Miller's trial on Wednesday. He said when Kenneth Miller asked him to drive to the United States to pick up Lisa Miller and her daughter, he took some time to "think about and pray about it" and concluded he would rather meet the two on the Canadian side of the border so as to avoid any legal complications in the United States.
He said he agreed to rendezvous in the middle of the night in Niagara, Ontario, with a person he did not know because of "the fact that she was a woman who had become a Christian and laid aside her wrong lifestyle."
An Amish-Mennonite pastor from Stuart's Draft, Virginia, Kenneth Miller had contacted other Mennonites to drive Lisa Miller and Isabella to the airport in Canada in 2009 and pick her up in Nicaragua where the group runs a mission, according to court documents. In statements and evidence, Kenneth Miller's lawyers argued that the minister was unaware that Lisa Miller was fleeing in defiance of court orders granting visitation to Jenkins and sought to cast doubt on the parenting abilities of Jenkins.
Miller and Jenkins partnership was dissolved in 2003 in Vermont courts, setting off a high-profile family court battle in two states over Isabella in which Miller would attempt to deny parental visitation rights to Jenkins by claiming that Virginia state law should not recognize Vermont court decisions in the matter because Virginia does not recognize civil unions or gay marriage.
The Justice Department has filed criminal charges against those who helped the mother and daughter travel to Nicaragua via Canada and Mexico by drawing on extensive e-mail correspondence between Kenneth Miller and others.
Prosecutors also introduced evidence linking Lisa Miller to a web of evangelical contacts in the state centered around the Thomas Road Baptist Church, in Lynchburg, Virginia, a church founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell. Prior to her flight Miller was briefly given a job at a Christian elementary school founded by Falwell and was represented in her family court battles by Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group headed by the dean of the law school at Liberty University, a school founded by Falwell.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Lisa Shumaker)