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Minister on trial in international ex-lesbian child kidnap case

Courtesy of Sarah Star

Janet Jenkins with her daughter Isabella in January 2009. It was the last time Jenkins saw her. The girl's other mother, Lisa Miller, was indicted on international kidnapping charges in 2010.

The trial of an Amish-Mennonite minister accused of helping an American woman spirit the child she had with her former same-sex partner out of the country just before she lost custody is getting under way this week.

Kenneth L. Miller, 46, of Stuarts Draft, Va., is charged with aiding and abetting Lisa Miller in taking her child, Isabella, to Nicaragua with the intent to obstruct the parental rights of her former civil union partner, Janet Jenkins, according to the court indictment. He is not related to Lisa Miller and could face a three-year sentence if convicted.

Federal agents haven’t been able to locate Isabella or Lisa Miller, who was indicted on international kidnapping charges in 2010. Miller gave birth to Isabella, who is now 10, through in vitro fertilization when the couple was still together in 2002. She later denounced homosexuality and took up conservative Christian ideals, Reuters reported.


"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," Gary Buseck, legal director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which helped Jenkins in her legal effort for visitation rights, told Reuters.

The case has drawn attention in part because it involves an international custody dispute, but also because it touches upon two major issues in the public square: gay rights and religion. A jury was selected Tuesday in Burlington, Vt., and opening arguments are scheduled for Wednesday.

Kenneth Miller's lawyer, Joshua Autry, told Reuters that his client didn't plan 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," he said. "We believe that after all of the evidence comes forth the jury will acquit him." 

AP file

Lisa Miller answers questions about her custody battle during a news conference in Richmond, Va., on April 17, 2008.

Kenneth Miller allegedly helped arrange the pair’s exit from their home in Lynchburg, Va., to Canada, where they crossed the border from New York on Sept. 22, 2009. He then facilitated the purchase of plane tickets to Nicaragua and set up contacts for them in the Central American country, according to an affidavit filed by Deputy U.S. Marshal Max Galusha.

Lisa Miller wed her former partner, Janet Jenkins, in a civil union in Vermont, but their relationship broke down in 2003. In the fall of that year, Miller moved to Virginia with Isabella. In November, she filed to dissolve their civil union, Galusha said. Reports said their union was dissolved in 2004.

The next years were filled with back-and-forth court hearings over child visitation. The court granted rights to parent-child contact to Jenkins in June 2004, but by the fall of 2009, Miller had not allowed court-ordered visits for Jenkins for much of the year.

The court determined in November 2009 that Jenkins would have sole physical and legal custody of Isabella starting on Jan. 2010, ruling that Miller had willfully interfered with her visitation rights. But Miller had already fled her home in Lynchburg, Va., with her daughter in tow.

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Kenneth Miller is the leader of a Beachy Amish Mennonite church in Stuarts Draft, The New York Times reported. The sect believes that same-sex marriage is a sin and its members said the mother and daughter were sheltered by their missionaries in Nicaragua, the newspaper reported. 

There are about 13,000 members of the Beachy Amish Mennonite sect worldwide, Cory Anderson, a member and doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University, told The Times.

Lisa Miller had filed her lawsuit seeking an order of parentage (to declare that she was the only one with parental rights to Isabella) in Virginia on the day that state's statute banning same-sex marriage went into effect in 2004, said Greg Nevins, a Lambda Legal attorney who worked on the case from that year to 2010. He noted it was important to establish such attempts at an "end-run" -- by changing jurisdictions in order to get a desired outcome -- would not be acceptable.

The case was thus important, not because it broke new ground or put same-sex parents in a different category, but "because it basically acknowledges that they should be treated ... the same as other people parenting children,” Nevins said.

Sarah Star, Jenkins' lawyer in Vermont, said she hoped the trial of Kenneth Miller would send a message to those continuing to "aid and abet" the abduction and ongoing crime, though she didn't think her client was going to get closure from the proceedings. 

“People need to be held accountable for breaking the law, but she’s interested in what’s going to bring Isabella home," she told NBC News. "The bottom line is … that Isabella is still missing."

Reuters and The New York Times contributed to this report.

Comments? Questions? You can email the reporter at miranda.leitsinger@msnbc.com

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