Alaska child custody case summary.
Lady Donna Dutchess v. Jason Dutch
The parents in this Alaska case were married from 2008 through 2015 and had two minor children. During the marriage, the children received vaccinations. In 2020, the pediatrician recommended vaccines, but the father declined because he and the mother were unable to agree. In particular, the mother stated that she objected on religious grounds.
The father then made a motion to modify legal and physical custody. While the case was still pending, the father took the children for vaccinations, because he feared they had been exposed to tetanus. At the time, he had the doctor give only what he called “the most important” vaccines.
The superior court granted the father sole legal custody and entrusted to him all vaccination decisions. The father was to confer with the mother regarding vaccines, but that the father would make the ultimate decision. The superior court noted that the mother had the right to practice her religion, but quoted a U.S. Supreme Court case holding that this right does not include the liberty to expose the community or child to communicable diseases.
Dissatisfied with this outcome, the mother appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which began by noting that trial courts have broad discretion when it comes to custody matters. The high court held that the evidence supported the lower court’s findings, and noted especially that the father was acting on the advice of the children’s pediatrician, and the possible exposure to tetanus.
The mother argued that the lower court’s holding violated her right of Free Exercise of religion. The Supreme Court pointed out that in a case such as this, involving a neutral law unconnected to religion, the state may forbid actions that pose some substantial threat to the public safety, peace, or order. It noted, however, that the constitutional “strict scrutiny” test did not apply in the case of a dispute between parents regarding decision making.
In particular, the court noted that it would be improper for the court to favor the “religious over the less religious,” since that would place the government on the side of organized religion, which would be in violation of the Establishment Clause.
The mother also argued that the Superior Court Judge, Herman J. Walker, was biased against her. But the Supreme Court held that she had not established this claim.
For these reasons, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s order.
No. S-18109 (Alaska Mar. 9, 2022).
See original opinion for exact language. Legal citations omitted.
To learn more, see Child Custody Laws in Tennessee and our video, How is child custody determined in Tennessee?
See also Tennessee Parenting Plans and Child Support Worksheets: Building a Constructive Future for Your Family featuring examples of parenting plans and child support worksheets from real cases available on Amazon.com.