New York Times reporter Erik Eckholm has a big front-page story in Sunday’s paper on a case that readers of RWW are familiar with: the disappearance of Lisa Miller. Eckholm traveled to Nicaragua to talk with the Mennonite communities that have helped harbor Miller and her daughter Isabella on their flight from United States law enforcement and from Isabella’s other legal parent, Miller’s former partner Janet Jenkins of Vermont. Miller, who kidnapped her daughter rather than allow her to have visitation rights with Jenkins, has become a cause celebre among the Religious Right, a supposed victim of anti-Christian persecution.
Eckholm supplies us with an illuminating and creepy anecdote about a family of hamsters left to die in Miller’s abandoned house, and casts some light on the thinking of those who helped harbor Miller in Nicaragua. But there’s one important piece of the puzzle that remains a mystery: did Miller’s attorneys at Liberty University have anything to do with Miller’s disappearance? LU Law School dean Mat Staver tells Eckholm that he was surprised as anyone when Miller disappeared, as he has since it first became known.
But Liberty University’s relationship with Miller has always been a little complicated. Rena Lindevaldsen, an LU Law School dean and Miller’s attorney before she disappeared, has now written a book arguing Miller’s case. And even before Miller kidnapped with Isabella, Lindevaldsen and Staver were teaching Miller’s case as an example of a situation where the demands of “God’s law” trump those of “man’s law.” Religion Dispatches’ Sarah Posner talked with several students who had taken a required class from the two deans and got her hands on a copy of an exam that quizzed students on what to do in Lisa Miller’s situation:
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.”
That semester’s mid-term 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 that 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.”
Of course, we have no way of knowing what Liberty Counsel knew and when they knew it. But Posner’s reporting shows that it’s certainly worth looking into.