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Lesbian custody case grows stranger

We've all heard of the War of the Roses, but there is a custody battle going on right now that has reached new heights in the art of war.

Not only is it a war of the same-sex parents involved, but it has become a war between gay rights activists and religious conservatives, and two states over jurisdiction.

As the weeks and months and now years have moved on since the couple ended their relationship, each woman, their legal teams and their respective states have fired round after round over the bow at each other, in an attempt to wrestle control of the situation, and the child at stake.

Judge William Cohen is overseeing legal stewardship in Vermont, and Judge John R. Prosser is reviewing the case in Virginia.

But when you look under the covers of this otherwise seemingly typical court battle between two bitter exes but loving parents, you find enough drama to raise more than a few eyebrows. Maybe a little less typical is that this entire tale, from start to finish has two completely different perspectives, down to the last detail of the relationship between these two women.

Here is what is known
Two years into their reportedly often tumultuous relationship, Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins, both originally from Virginia, had joined into a civil union during a weekend getaway in December 2000 to Vermont.

The following year, they decided to bring a child – through artificial insemination - into their relationship and the baby was born in April 2002. Four months later, they moved to Vermont to raise that child.

They all shared the last name of Miller-Jenkins.

A year almost to the day later, Lisa decided she wanted to move back to Virginia, alone, with their daughter Isabella. Janet evidently thought that it was a trial separation, and began paying child support and visiting as often as she could.

Finding God
Since leaving Jenkins and returning to Virginia, Miller has become an evangelical Christian, and peppers her language with evidence of her newfound but deeply held beliefs. She has commonly been reported to have said things like, "God has always looked out for us," or "God has orchestrated all of this," and "I'm going to do what HE wants me to do."

She has also reportedly said that she is "raising Isabella to pattern herself after Christ."

After stumbling upon some "ex-gay" publications in a Christian bookstore, Miller quickly renounced her previous life as a lesbian and decided she no longer wanted to share her child with her ex-partner or subject her to her previous lifestyle.

She filed for dissolution of civil marriage and began her quest for personal justice. Early on, Miller was working with lawyers in Vermont, but that didn't work out so well.

In fact, her second lawyer, Deborah Lashman, planned to represent Miller in a custody battle. Lashman, a previous same-sex court battle victim herself, openly acknowledged Jenkins' right as a parent, since the baby was conceived during a civil union. Unfortunately, Miller didn't want parentage rights for Jenkins to even be on the table.

At insurmountable odds with her client, the lawyer finally withdrew and Miller began the hunt for representation that would exploit the civil unions law to her benefit, something that Judge Cohen had not been allowing.

Enter Exodus
Frustrated and probably hoping for divine intervention, Miller reached out to Exodus International (the infamous "ex-gay" organization) with a request for prayers and got even more - including full support of the religious right. Miller was an ideological cause they could glom onto.

That simple correspondence completely changed the playing field; and soon threw this small town child custody dispute deep into the national psyche.

The organization that initially ran to Miller's side, offering spiritual and emotional support, later stepped in to take over as her lead counsel.

The conservative group, led by Mat Staver, a dean in the Law School at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, is known as The Liberty Counsel. Their Web site states they are "dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage."

This rabid new support system clearly also had an impact on Miller. Not only was she now openly touting homosexuality a sin, she even went so far as to state in an interview with a conservative news source that she was convinced by two different mental health care workers on different occasions that she was a lesbian; causing her to accept their assessment and just adapt the lifestyle.

In the same interview, she admits that despite her decision, she was never really attracted to women and felt "peace" leaving the lifestyle. Miller also casually but very deliberately inferred that there was inappropriate touching and/or behavior between Jenkins and Isabella.

These are all themes taken directly from the conservative right's anti-gay playbook.

She could not have handled the interview better if Falwell himself had been resurrected and had slipped her a pile of flash cards.

Not to be outdone, Jenkins soon had pro-bono support from several Virginia-based gay advocacy groups, one handling her case in Vermont, and another handling her case in Virginia, and the stakes grew higher with each court appearance or ruling.

Allegations are disputed
Jenkins has repeatedly disputed Miller's assertions that she wasn't involved in Miller's insemination, didn't support her pregnancy, was physically and emotionally abusive to her, and didn't want to be involved in Isabella's day to day life.

In fact, her perspective of the ups and downs of their relationship is very different, and her parents - who spent a lot of time with the couple, and to this day live not far from Lisa - seem to share her perspective.

These differences in context - both historical and moral - have only seemed to fuel the fire under the prospective sides and fanned the flames of the court case itself.

It became not only a match of legal, but moral skill, as religious groups continued to join together, to hone and spread the message and basis of this important fight they were now pursuing.

The child at stake, it seems, was forgotten; as the greater truths purported by both sides elbowed to take center stage.

No sooner had Cohen issued visitation rights to Jenkins, Virginia passed their version of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), allowing Prosser to negate Cohen's ruling. Cohen refused to defer; Prosser issued a stay.

At one point, the Virginia appeals court sided with Vermont's ruling, but the battle continued.

Contempt charges
Miller has been charged with contempt more times than Isabella has had birthdays, and has been fined extraordinary amounts as a result. She'd known for years that if she did not comply, she was on the verge of having those contempt charges turn into a loss of custody. Still, she harbored on, as if by the grace of God.

Last year, after nearly five years of legal anarchy, Judge Cohen finally tired of Miller's disrespect of his court. Despite the fact that Jenkins has not seen Isabella in years, Cohen ordered Miller to turn custody over to her, as of Jan. 1, 2010. The turnover was scheduled to take place at the home of Jenkins' parents, on the early afternoon of Dec 31, 2009.

Instead, Miller disappeared with the child and failed to make the court ordered appearance. SDGLN published the account here.

Since then, no one has seen or heard from Miller or Isabella. Her lawyers all say they have no idea where she is and have not heard from her, and there doesn't seem to be any concern from that side about their safety, much less in trying to find them. It all seems a little orchestrated, and little fishy.

On Jan. 23, Judge Cohen issued a deadline of Feb. 23 for Miller to appear with Isabella. That day has now passed and Cohen has issued a warrant for her arrest.

Miller's attorney, of course, denounces the warrant, saying it is a waste of time since it is only good for Vermont, where Miller is unlikely to be hiding.

So the custody battle is now a child abduction case, probably at no one's surprise.

Could Miller be living undercover? Could she and her daughter be living under assumed names in a "safe" house? Could someone be harboring this now fugitive mother in the name of religious freedom? Time will surely tell, so stay tuned.

It would be safe to guess that players on both sides are gearing up to sell the rights to this tale and decide who will play Jenkins and Miller, for this certainly is a drama that begs to be played out on the big - or little - screen.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor at SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, x710 or at morgan@sdgln.com.