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Prayer is no substitute for medical care, Alaska Supreme Court says

The Alaska Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court decision that removed an elderly woman from the care of her daughter after the daughter declined to treat the woman’s epilepsy and said she would use prayer to treat her, even in a medical emergency.

The daughter, identified in the decision as “Rachel O.,” argued the prior decision amounted to religious discrimination because she cares for her mother — identified as “Tiffany O.” — “based on the tenets of religion instead of how the state wants her cared for.”

The court disagreed, writing in a unanimous ruling that “by depriving her mother of personal care services and emergency services in favor of prayer, Rachel not only fails to satisfy the essential requirements (of state law), but also puts Tiffany’s health and safety at risk.”

Rachel represented herself as the appellant, and the Alaska Department of Law represented the appellee.

The ruling, published Friday, concludes nearly 13 years of action by the state, which became involved in 2007 when Rachel requested the state appoint a guardian for Tiffany.

That was done in 2008, but Rachel became dissatisfied with the care her mother was receiving, according to court records. In 2011, Rachel became Tiffany’s guardian and said that because she graduated from a ministry school, she was justified to “rely entirely on prayer in lieu of hospital care” for her mother, the ruling states.

Rachel fired Tiffany’s personal caregivers, and after several complaints against Rachel, the state began investigating her care. In 2018, a Superior Court judge agreed that Rachel should be removed as Tiffany’s guardian and replaced with the Office of Public Advocacy.

Alaska’s high court has repeatedly said that “no value has a higher place in our constitutional system of government than that of religious freedom,” but in this case, the court concluded that Tiffany was being placed in danger.

“If Tiffany required immediate medical attention, the results could be fatal,” the court concluded. “For this reason, while religious liberty is a fundamental right under the Alaska Constitution, the state’s actions in this case are justified by a compelling interest.”

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