By Jason McLure
LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - A Mennonite minister goes on trial this week for helping a woman flee to Nicaragua with her daughter to evade court-ordered visitation with her former same-sex partner, and he could face up to three years in jail if convicted.
Kenneth Miller, of Stuarts Draft, Virginia, is charged with aiding and abetting the kidnapping of Isabella Miller-Jenkins, now 10, in a case that has become a cultural touchstone in the debate about gay rights. Jury selection begins on Tuesday.
One of Isabella's mothers, Lisa Miller — who is not related to Kenneth Miller — took the girl to Central America in 2009 after denouncing homosexuality and losing a series of family court battles in Vermont with her former partner, Janet Jenkins.
"I think she's in the equivalent of the underground railroad with the religious people ... who see the gay rights agenda overwhelming their religious rights," said Gary Buseck, legal director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which helped Jenkins in her legal effort for visitation rights.
Lisa Miller was indicted on international kidnapping charges in 2010 but federal agents have been unable to locate her or Isabella.
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.
An Amish-Mennonite pastor who worked in his family's garden-supply business, Kenneth Miller 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. His lawyer, Joshua Autry, said his client didn't intend to obstruct Jenkins' visitation rights.
"Unfortunately for Kenneth Miller the government has decided to drag him hundreds of miles from his home to a distant venue to prosecute him in violation of his constitutional rights," Autry told Reuters. "We believe that after all of the evidence comes forth the jury will acquit him."
A website, MillerCase.org, that has raised over $73,000 for Kenneth Miller's legal defense does not discuss his role in the kidnapping, though it outlines his views on gay rights.
"Ken says it is clear that Jesus taught marriage is to be a life-long relationship between one man and one woman," it says. "Ken sees the solution for the sins of adultery and other sexual sins — including homosexuality — as being life-long repentance."
Jenkins and Lisa Miller were joined in a civil union in Vermont after a nearly two-year engagement. The couple soon sought to have a child through in vitro fertilization, and in 2002 Miller gave birth to Isabella. The relationship faltered shortly thereafter and Miller filed to dissolve the union in November 2003 in family court in Rutland, Vermont.
By mid-2004, Miller had custody of Isabella but a Vermont court had ordered Jenkins visitation rights with the child.
Miller, who increasingly embraced conservative Christian ideals and renounced homosexuality, soon began contesting Jenkins' visitation rights in Virginia, which does not issue same-sex marriage licenses or civil unions.
In 2008, Virginia's Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Vermont's courts had jurisdiction since that's where both the civil union and its dissolution were filed.
Her legal options exhausted, Lisa Miller took Isabella across to Canada where they were met by a Mennonite pastor contacted by Kenneth Miller.
Mother and daughter were driven to Toronto airport where they donned traditional Mennonite garb and boarded a plane for Mexico and then Nicaragua, according to court documents.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Anthony Boadle)