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Good news: Common sense in alive and well in the Alaska legal system, keeping church and state separate under the law.

On July 24, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a woman named “Rachel O,” the daughter of intellectually disabled and epileptic “Tiffani O,” has no legal right to forgo medical treatment and exclusively treat her mother with “faith healing.”

In the ruling, the high court affirmed a lower Superior Court decision that removed Tiffani O from the care of her daughter in a case identified as “In the Matter of the Protective Proceedings of Tiffani O.”

faith healing medicine alaska supreme court atheism
Faith healing: A cross and a Bible, minus a stethoscope. (Surachat, Adobe Stock

The Anchorage Daily News reported:

“The daughter [who represented herself] … argued the prior decision amounted to religious discrimination because she cares for her mother ‘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.’”

That’s what a rational, common-sense application of American law should always look like.

The state Supreme Court ruling ended some 13 years of state involvement with the family, beginning in 2007 when Rachel asked the state to appoint a guardian for her mother; one was appointed in 2007.

However, when Rachel became dissatisfied with her mother’s care, the Daily News reported, she herself became her mother’s guardian. She then claimed 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,” according to the newspaper.

After Rachel fired her mother’s caregivers and several complaints were issued against her, a Superior Court judge in 2018 agreed that Rachel should be replaced as Tiffany’s guardian by the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy.

There were two separate questions analyzed in this case — should religion should trump state law in private health matters, and was Rachel a fit guardian for her mother.

The courts, encouragingly, decided that “no” was the correct legal position for both.

Acknowledging that “no value has a higher place” than religious freedom in American life, the state Supreme Court nonetheless concluded that it was secondary to protecting Tiffani from being placed in danger from supernatural healing practices.

“If Tiffany required immediate medical attention, the results could be fatal,” the court wrote in its decision. “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.”

In a July post in his The Friendly Atheist blog, Hemant Mehta wrote that Rachel had a history of faith-based medical neglect:

“There was a long pattern of Tiffany needing actual medical help and her daughter refusing to give it to her because appealing to God was deemed a sufficient substitute. Their relationship involved the same sort of faith-based neglect that we see with children as the victims. But while parents are given leeway regarding their kids’ health — too much, in these cases — the court here had the power to step in and remove Rachel’s guardianship status.”

Mehta reported that the earlier Superior Court decision against Rachel hinged on “a history of family tension,” and that Rachel’s “hostility, bordering on paranoia, toward outside entities” resulted in Tiffany “losing valuable services and resources to which she is entitled.”

Importantly, the court stressed that its ruling in no way violated Rachel’s personal “right to practice her faith,” of which she had accused authorities. The court’s responsibility to protect Tiffani superseded Rachel’s desire to impose practices of her faith on her mother that could have been injurious to her health and wellbeing, the court said.

The court is correct to not let one person’s need for magic in their health care subvert another’s right to proper medical intervention.

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Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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