In re Tiffany O.
In In re Tiffany O., 467 P.3d 1076 (Alaska 2020), the supreme court held that removing a guardian who relied on prayer instead of other reasonable forms of health care did not violate the Alaska Constitution’s free exercise clause due to the state’s compelling interest in protecting the ward. (Id. at 1078). Rachel was appointed guardian of her mother Tiffany, who suffered from epilepsy and intellectual disability, in 2011. (Id.). Rachel saw herself as her mother’s “spiritual authority” and relied on prayer in lieu of other medical care, for example praying when her mother had seizures and declining to administer her medications. (Id. at 1078–79). In 2017, both the Office of Public Advocacy and Tiffany’s other daughter filed petitions for review of the guardianship, alleging Rachel was financially exploiting her mother and either physically abusing her or failing to keep her safe. (Id.). The court removed Rachel as guardian because although a “faith-based, holistic view” was not necessarily incompatible with the role, Rachel’s “intractable belief system” and hostility towards outside resources prevented her from seeking reasonable care options. (Id.). On appeal, the supreme court agreed, holding it was not abuse of discretion to conclude Rachel’s beliefs and behavior prevented her from making “objective decisions” as guardian. (Id. at 1080). Under the Alaska Constitution’s free exercise clause, a facially neutral statute that interferes with religious-based conduct must be justified by a compelling state interest. (Id. at 1082). Here, the guardianship statute reflected a strong interest in protecting the health and safety of vulnerable individuals, such as Tiffany’s, which would suffer if Rachel were not removed. (Id.). Thus, the supreme court held even though free exercise is a fundamental right under the Alaska Constitution, removing the guardian was justified by a compelling interest in the ward’s health and safety. (Id.).