Who is Mat Staver, Counsel for Anti-Gay Activist Against Suit from Uganda?

Recently the religious right legal group Liberty Counsel announced a partnership with Personhood USA, which will allow “both Liberty Counsel and Personhood USA to be more effective in advocating for the passage of personhood legislation and state initiatives for constitutional amendments in states across the country.” Several weeks later, the firm announced that it also would be representing anti-gay activist Scott Lively in a lawsuit brought by a Ugandan LGBT rights group, charging he incited persecution of sexual minorities there. The lawsuit, Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman Mat Staver said, “is a gross attempt to use a vague international law to silence, and eventually criminalize, speech by U.S. citizens on homosexuality and moral issues.”

Last year RD Senior Editor Sarah Posner, wrote about Staver and his other role as Dean at Liberty University Law School, which revealed how he taught his students that they should engage in “civil disobedience” against court orders that conflict with “biblical law.” In light of Staver’s emergence as an attorney both for a radical anti-gay activist who has compared gay people to Nazis and claimed they instigated the Rwandan genocide, and an organization that seeks to outlaw not just abortion, but certain forms of birth control and assisted reproductive technology, we are republishing that piece, first published in May 2011, today. – eds

Late last month, after federal authorities arrested a Tennessee pastor on charges of aiding and abetting an international parental kidnapping, students at Liberty University Law School saw one of their exam questions come to life.

The pastor was charged with helping Lisa Miller, an “ex”-lesbian, abscond to Nicaragua with her young daughter Isabella after she flouted a series of court orders requiring Isabella’s visitation with Miller’s former partner, Janet Jenkins. According to the criminal complaint and FBI affidavit, Miller has been in hiding with Isabella since September 2009, living in the beach house of Christian Right activist and businessman Philip Zodhiates, whose daughter Victoria Hyden works as an administrative assistant at Liberty Law School.

Students at Liberty Law School tell RD that in the required Foundations of Law class in the fall of 2008, taught by Miller’s attorneys Mat Staver and Rena Lindevaldsen, they were repeatedly instructed that when faced with a conflict between “God’s law” and “man’s law,” they should resolve that conflict through “civil disobedience.” One student said, “the idea was when you are confronted with a particular situation, for instance, if you have a court order against you that is in violation of what you see as God’s law, essentially… civil disobedience was the answer.”

This student and two others, who all requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by Staver (who is also the law school’s dean), recounted the classroom discussion of civil disobedience, as well as efforts to draw comparisons between choosing “God’s law” over “man’s law” to the American revolution and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. According to one student, in the Foundations course both Staver and Lindevaldsen “espoused the opinion that in situations where God’s law is in direct contradiction to man’s law, we have an obligation to disobey it.”

Deborah Cantrell, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law, and an expert in both legal ethics and family law, said that discussions of civil disobedience in law school classrooms must “be transparent that this is not a simplistic conversation.” She added that a law professor should emphasize that the discussion is a “normative” one, and that civil disobedience has consequences, including jail, and, for a lawyer who advises a client to disobey a court order, possible loss of their license to practice law.

That semester’s midterm exam, obtained by RD [see excerpts of the actual exam here], included a question based on Miller’s case asking students to describe what advice they would give her “as a friend who is a Christian lawyer.” After laying out a slanted history of the protracted legal battle, the exam asked, “Lisa needs your counsel on how to think through her legal situation and how to respond as a Christian to this difficult problem. Relying only on what we have learned thus far in class, how would you counsel Lisa?”

Students who wrote that Miller should comply with court orders received bad grades while those who wrote she should engage in civil disobedience received an A, the three students said. “People were appalled,” said one of the students, adding, “especially as lawyers-to-be, who are trained and licensed to practice the law—to disobey that law, that seemed completely counterintuitive to all of us.”

Still, some knew what they needed to “regurgitate,” in order to get a good grade. “It was obvious by the substance of the class during the semester the answer that they wanted,” said one of the students. “The majority of people that I am acquainted with who did get As wrote that because it was expected of them.”

One of the students who got an A said, “I told them she needed to engage in civil disobedience and seriously consider leaving the country,” adding, “I knew what I needed to write.”

Given what was expected of them on the exam, and the tenor of the class, there is “not a lot of shock among the students about the current developments,” said one of the students, referring to the revelation that Miller is in hiding in Nicaragua. “Everybody semi-suspected that Liberty Counsel had something to do with her disappearance.”

A Protracted Case of Biblical Worldview

The protracted custody battle between Miller and Jenkins, which has spanned eight years and multiple courts in two states, has been a celebrated case for Liberty Counsel, the nonprofit law firm of which Staver is the chair and which is affiliated with the law school. Liberty Counsel’s publicity for its relentless litigation on Miller’s behalf has exploited several religious right tropes: that gay and lesbian people can be made straight through Christ; that “activist judges” are subverting biblical principles; and that the very health of the republic is at risk because gay and lesbian people can be parents.

In an October 1, 2008 posting on its website, Liberty Counsel asked supporters “to help us spread the word about the ongoing legal case that directly impacts the life of six-year old child Isabella and the future of this Nation,” adding that, if Vermont courts ruled against Miller, “then, on the issues of marriage and family, our country will no longer be the United States of America but instead will be the United States according to Massachusetts, California, or Vermont.”

The posting included a letter written by Lindevaldsen, asking for prayers and help for “Lisa Miller—my client, my friend, my sister in Christ.” The letter, dated September 22, 2008, claimed that Miller “is one of thousands across this nation who have left the homosexual lifestyle through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ.” The three-page plea was an homage to Miller’s elevation of Scripture over court orders, noting, “Lisa could be thrown in jail for refusing to expose her child to Janet’s harmful and destructive lifestyle,” as a result of her refusal to comply with the visitation orders from the Vermont court.

“Lisa’s desire to raise her child according to the truths of Scripture are [sic] under attack,” Lindevaldsen concluded. “At times like this, the Church needs to stand united before our Lord to intercede on Lisa and Isabella’s behalf.”

Lindevaldsen also created a Facebook group—since defunct—“Only One Mommy: The Story of Lisa and Isabella Miller,” and maintains a blog called “Only One Mommy.” Its tagline: “helping to restore God’s design for marriage and family.”

In the fall of 2008, when Liberty Counsel was making these pleas and Miller was making appearances in her lawyers’ Foundations class, she had long been in violation of the law. She had been held in contempt of several court orders requiring Isabella’s visitation with Jenkins dating back to 2004. Despite those contempt orders, Miller and her lawyers persisted with their arguments, relentlessly appealing rulings against them, charging that they were in contravention of the Bible.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied review of her appeal from a Virginia court holding that Vermont courts should decide the custody matter. The Vermont Supreme Court had ruled as early as 2006 that “the record supported the conclusion that Lisa was in contempt of court for willfully violating” a 2004 visitation order. In March 2008, in ruling on yet another appeal by Liberty Counsel, a clearly frustrated Vermont Supreme Court panel held that it had already resolved all the issues in its 2006 order. Writing that there was no new evidence that would change its prior legal conclusions, the court also noted that Miller’s arguments were “disingenuous in light of the family court’s unchallenged findings regarding the child’s best interests and plaintiff’s [Miller’s] contemptuous conduct.”

Did Liberty Counsel Know Miller had Fled to Nicaragua?

Neither Staver nor Lindevaldsen responded to RD’s requests for comment, but Staver told the New York Times last month that they had not had contact with Miller since 2009 and had always advised her to obey the law. Staver and Lindevaldsen did, however, teach their students that “civil disobedience” was a proper response, and persisted in their efforts to reverse court orders with relentless appeals claiming that court orders were in contravention of Miller’s Christian beliefs.

In August 2009, just one month before the FBI believes Miller fled to Nicaragua, Liberty Counsel attached a 20-page affidavit signed by Miller to a brief it filed in court in opposition to Jenkins’ request to transfer custody of Isabella to her. Miller claimed, among other things, that the case was “about having Vermont courts choose between two diametrically opposed worldviews on parentage and family,” that the Bible deems homosexuality a sin, and that gay parenting “is not consistent with the truth in the Bible.”

She concluded, “I simply do not understand how a system of government that recognizes that there are certain unalienable rights that are given to us from God, and therefore cannot be taken away by government can declare Janet a parent and give her custody of my child.”

Three months later, the Vermont family court ruled in favor of transferring custody of Isabella to Jenkins. In response to Jenkins’ attorney’s January 2010 motion to hold Miller in contempt of court for not complying with that order to transfer custody, Lindevaldsen reacted with a motion to withdraw from the case (but not from its then-pending appeal—its third—to the Vermont Supreme Court). Lindevaldsen claimed Miller could not be found, and that she had had no contact with Miller and could not represent her since she did not know what her wishes were.

Jenkins’ attorney charged in a court filing that Liberty Counsel demonstrated “a clear attempt to assist their client in ducking service by withdrawing.” The court denied Liberty Counsel’s motion.

After Miller had been in contempt of court for disregarding both the multiple visitation orders and the judge’s order that she turn over custody of Isabella to Jenkins, the Vermont family court issued an arrest warrant for her. At the time, Staver told a reporter, “We don’t know where she is and we don’t know anybody who does know her whereabouts,” adding that he hadn’t had contact with her since the previous fall. On April 27, 2010, a federal court in Vermont charged Miller with one count of parental kidnapping “with intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights.”

A Law School with a Christian Worldview

The law school, founded in 2004, “upon the premise that there is an integral relationship between faith and reason, and that both have their origin in the Triune God,” claims a vision “to see again all meaningful dialogue over law include the role of faith and the perspective of a Christian worldview as the framework most conducive to the pursuit of truth and justice.” The law school received accreditation from the America Bar Association last year.

The Foundations class is unlike anything offered at secular law schools, its purpose being to guide students toward a “Christian worldview” of the law. In the 2008-09 academic year, the required texts included David Barton’s Original Intent, which Barton’s website describes as “essential resource for anyone interested in our nation’s religious heritage and the Founders’ intended role for the American judicial system,” and Francis Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto.

But the students who spoke to RD worry that these Christian credentials will not serve them well after graduation. “If you walked into court and argued what Liberty wants you to,” said one, “you’d be laughed out of the room.”

Staver’s views, they said, are “militant” and “fundamentalist.” He brooks no criticism from students or faculty. “He rules the law school like Moammar Gaddafi runs Libya,” said one of the students.

In “Revolutionary Hall,” alongside likenesses of King, Reagan, Ghandi, Mother Teresa and others, the school has installed a painting of Staver arguing before the Supreme Court. It depicts him arguing McCreary v. Kentucky, defending a constitutional challenge to a public Ten Commandments display—which he lost.

What’s more, the fundamentalist worldview imposed on students there may be having the opposite effect than Liberty intends. One of the students told RD, “I came in the type that watches Fox News all the time and was a pretty hardline right-winger,” but the law school “changed my viewpoints and now I would consider myself a conservative-leaning moderate.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email