Chuck Colson on Miller-Jenkins

by Walter Olson on March 2, 2007

I know we’re supposed to give prominent Religious Right figure Chuck Colson a pass because of his compelling life story and the work he’s done with prisoners, but jeepers, does he ever give a misleading account of the Miller-Jenkins case (Vermont-Virginia lesbian custody battle), discussed earlier in this space Aug. 15, 2004, Dec. 16, 2004, Aug. 26, 2006, and Nov. 29, 2006.

Colson begins his column (“Legal Fictions”, syndicated/TownHall, Feb. 28) by announcing that Miller-Jenkins presents “one of the most important legal battles of our time”. In fact, as I noted back in 2004, the case presents the somewhat less epochal issue: can a party dissatisfied with a visitation/custody outcome litigated in one state ignore a resulting court order in order to pursue proceedings in what is expected to be a more favorable state?

Colson cites a recent in-depth story about the case in the Washington Post Magazine (April Witt, “About Isabella”, Feb. 2). Somehow, however, he omits to mention a feature of the case that figured centrally in that account, namely the outstanding court order that Lisa Miller, biological and custodial mom of Isabella, has been defying for years now. Since Colson does not mention that court order, he naturally does not inform readers that it arose after Miller voluntarily submitted to the jurisdiction of a Vermont court dissolving her civil union with Janet Jenkins. Nor do his readers learn that Miller was happy to pocket child support payments from Jenkins, before eventually deciding to blow off the court order, or try to, by cutting off Jenkins’ regular visitations with Isabella.

Nor does Colson describe the current posture of the case. If he did, he would have to acknowledge that both the Vermont Supreme Court and a Virginia appeals panel have ruled unanimously against Miller, who nonetheless continues to defy the court order. There is no indication that Miller’s team of Religious Right litigators is uncomfortable with this posture of hers.

Colson frames the story for dramatic effect as one in which Jenkins, appearing from out of the past, demands custody of Isabella — although the dispute in fact arose over visitation, and although the likely outcome of the case (assuming Miller relents rather than pursuing her contempt of court all the way into a jail cell) is simply going to be the restoration of Jenkins’ visitation rights. Pricelessly, Colson dismisses Jenkins’ legal rights as those of “a woman [Isabella] barely remembers”, without inquiring as to how Miller managed to engineer this state of affairs.

And, no surprise, Colson also fails to mention the relevant federal statute, the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1738A, which as Eugene Volokh points out “requires courts [in other states] to adhere to preexisting custody awards generally, not just ones that follow the dissolution of a marriage”.

Probably the most enduring significance of the Miller-Jenkins case will be as an indication of the willingness of many on the Religious Right, even the lawyers among them, to applaud and defend the defiance of court orders when those orders inconvenience the godly or uphold the legal rights of the ungodly. I wonder whether Colson gives a thought to this when he decries, in the column, “our reckless pursuit of getting whatever we want at all costs”.

I also wonder whether the proposition that it’s just fine to violate laws and court orders when one feels impelled by a higher cause — I believe some social conservatives like to label this point of view as antinomian — is a message that Colson is accustomed to spread when he addresses groups of prisoners in the course of his public work. If so, we can only hope the prisoners don’t take the message to heart (& welcome Ed Brayton, MarriageDebate.com, Eugene Volokh readers).

{ 3 trackbacks }

Secular Right » Presidential medal for Charles Colson
12.12.08 at 12:20 am
Update: Chuck Colson and Miller-Jenkins case
12.12.08 at 12:42 am
Box Turtle Bulletin » Colson, George Awarded Presidential Citizenship Medal
12.12.08 at 12:47 pm

{ 7 comments }

1 wavemaker 03.02.07 at 3:20 pm

Walter, I’m not convinced that Colson deliberately ignores the legal aspects of the case that you point out — his point is simply “how far we’ve sunk” when the culture has resulted in the invention of legal relationships that are foreign to natural law. But I don’t read his piece as a call for her to continue to break the law.

2 gkb2004 03.02.07 at 3:29 pm

since when does the law have anything to do with “natural law”? Laws were created by men pretending to be gods!

3 Mike Perry 03.03.07 at 12:32 am

“I also wonder whether the proposition that it’s just fine to violate laws and court orders when one feels impelled by a higher cause….”

Yes, they call that civil disobedience. It was quite popular back in the early 1960s. There was a lot of chatter about higher causes, and more than a few preachers involved. When civil disobedience is happening, it’s typically criticized. Years later, almost everyone pretends they were a supporter and never had a problem with the law breaking.

Note that I’m not commenting on this particular case, since I know nothing about it, just the rather inflexible suggestion that “laws and court orders” ought always to be obeyed. I find that a bit shallow and its use in an issue of this importance a cheap trick.

There’s also the term “Religious Right” in what can only be called ‘scare capitals.’ In English, capitalization in that context is only used of things that are sharply defined: Ford Motor Company and the United Auto Workers, but not auto makers or auto workers.

A group that encompasses Jews (Orthodox to Conservative), Protestants (Pentecostals to Episcopalians), the Eastern Orthodox (Russian and Greek), as well as Mormons (one wife or several), is far more like auto workers than it is the United Auto Workers.

The proper term is religious conservatives in small letters.

–Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesteron on War: Militarism, Pacifism, Racism and the German Heresy (soon out)

4 Ratel 03.03.07 at 1:46 pm

In spite of the apparent similarities between the situations regarding “civil disobedience”, it is morally repugnant to compare the struggle against laws meant to oppress and disadvantage an entire class of people just because of the color of their skin and an individual selfishly seeking to deny visitation rights.

5 Repusyort 03.03.07 at 2:13 pm

Mike-

It’s civil disobedience if it conforms roughly with the standards set forth in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Like openly acknowledging violating the law and submitting oneself to whatever punishment may be meted out, however unjust.

I don’t see those contours here.

6 Bob Montgomery 03.05.07 at 11:59 am

the proposition that it’s just fine to violate laws and court orders when one feels impelled by a higher cause — I believe some social conservatives like to label this point of view as antinomian

That isn’t what antinomian means (and I’ve never heard that belief labelled such).
antinomian: one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation

For most social conservatives, or at least for most Christians, the law referred to in that definition would be the Mosaic, Old Testament law, not 21st century US law.

The belief that non-biblical laws should be disregarded when they conflict with what God requires doesn’t have a fancy name that I’m aware of, though it is certainly a biblical concept:
Acts 5:29 “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.'”

7 Walter Olson 03.05.07 at 1:27 pm

I agree that antinomian (“against law”) is most often used to signify a refusal to be bound by moral or religious laws. However, many definitions of the term go farther than that, like those here (American Heritage Dictionary: claim of dispensation from “any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral,”) and here (WordNet: assertion of freedom from “all” laws).

As several sources point out, antinomian is mostly an epithet directed at opponents, who on closer inspection are usually not claiming any across-the-board right not to obey laws. Some years ago in Reason I noted that certain writers in religious-conservative and neocon circles — the sort of circles where Colson’s name has much currency — were tending to adopt the word as a catch-all description of the modern world’s disrespect for established authority.

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