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HHS backs down after threatening Catholic hospital system over keeping a sacred candle in its chapels


“The government knew it was playing with fire — today it announced its decision to allow the living flame so Saint Francis can continue to serve God and its community, as it always has.”


After threatening to deny a Catholic hospital system in Oklahoma the accreditation required to continue accepting patients who use Medicare, Medicaid, and the Child’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) because it kept a sacred candle burning in its chapels, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) backed down earlier today and said that the candles can remain lit and in place.

Quick Facts

The capitulation came after the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a letter threatening to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of Saint Francis Health System.

Saint Francis is the 12th largest health system in the U.S., with five hospitals in eastern Oklahoma. It is also a devoutly Catholic organization. Barry Steichen, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Saint Francis, recently detailed the hospital’s history and the religious significance of the candle:

“Over 60 years ago, Saint Francis was founded by William K. and Natalie Warren as an act of gratitude and service to God and to the people of Oklahoma. The cornerstone of Saint Francis is love for God and man. To this day, the Saint Francis torch insignia indicates a space of hope: a place where the medical and spiritual stand as one.”

Saint Francis keeps a candle burning in its chapels to honor the Catholic Code of Canon Law, which mandates that anywhere the Eucharist is administered, a special lamp must be lit continuously. A recent re-accreditation survey by The Joint Commission has resulted in a possible legal challenge over the candle. The Joint Commission is an independent organization whose findings are used by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a department under HHS, when determining certification for the use of Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP.

The surveyor claimed that the candle presented a safety risk and issued a demand for the candle to be snuffed out. If Saint Francis refused, it would no longer be allowed to serve patients who use Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP.

Saint Francis had asked for a waiver four times from CMS but was denied each time.

CMS officials sent a letter on April 20 saying they “recommend that your facility engage with TJC [The Joint Commission] on the plan of correction (evidence of standard compliance) process to address this deficiency.”

On May 2, Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sent a response to officials at HHS explaining that their actions are in conflict with fire safety standards and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Windham alleged,

“You have threatened to deny accreditation because Saint Francis keeps a candle—an eternal flame—in its hospital sanctuary. For 15 years, that flame has burned without problem or concern in Saint Francis Hospital South in Tulsa; and for 63 years, the eternal flame has burned at Saint Francis Hospital Yale Campus, the largest hospital in the state of Oklahoma, without problem or concern. From the moment Saint Francis opened its doors in 1960, this flame has been maintained without interruption. In requiring Saint Francis to extinguish its flame, you are trying to extinguish not just a candle, but the First Amendment rights of Saint Francis Health System, as well as vital healthcare for the elderly, poor, and disabled in Oklahoma.”

Windham later noted,

“This case is not a close call… Becket has a long and successful history of suing HHS and other state actors for RFRA, RLUIPA [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act], and First Amendment violations. At the Supreme Court, we won Hobby Lobby, Little Sisters of the Poor (twice), Holt, Fulton, and Agudath Israel. Several of those were unanimous. And this is one of the most egregious violations we have ever seen.”

Becket disputed TJC’s and CMS’s claim that the candle is an “open flame burning unattended 24/7” and is in violation of regulations barring open flames within one foot of a nasal cannula, which is a medical device that provides oxygen to patients. They wrote,

“Despite many sprinkler heads surrounding the candle, good exhaust, the flame’s double glass encasing, the bronze top enclosing the flame, despite its mounting to a wall over six feet high, and despite the surveyor’s knowledge of the fire marshal’s long-standing approval of the eternal flame, the sanctuary lamp did not meet with the surveyor’s favor.”

The letter called on HHS to grant an accommodation for Saint Francis, and earlier today HHS did just that.

“The government has seen the light and has abandoned its attempt to force an Oklahoma hospital to blow out a small candle or stop serving elderly, disabled, and low-income patients,” Windham said in a statement, adding that HHS “has told Saint Francis that it can keep its living flame—a sacred candle housed in the hospital chapels.”

She continued,

“The government knew it was playing with fire — today it announced its decision to allow the living flame so Saint Francis can continue to serve God and its community, as it always has.”

Why would HHS concern itself with a sacred candle that has been burning since Dwight Eisenhower was president and years before CMS was even created? Because this government has an anti-Christian bias, and especially an anti-Catholic bias.

The persecution of Saint Francis is just the latest in a growing number of instances where the Biden administration is targeting Catholics. The FBI’s memo on the implanting of sources within Catholic churches to mitigate the threat from “Radical Traditionalist Catholics”; the sending of an armed tactical team to arrest Catholic pro-life activist Mark Houck for a FACE Act violation (for which he was later fully acquitted); and the perceived indifference by the DOJ to hundreds of attacks on Catholic churches and pregnancy centers are only a few of the examples of the administration’s seeming disdain for Catholics.

That trend was reiterated recently by the DOJ’s sweetheart plea agreement with a transgender pro-abortion activist. Maeve Nota spray painted several hateful and vulgar messages on St. Louise Catholic Church in Bellevue, Washington; destroyed a statue of Mary; broke two glass doors; and spray-painted the face of a church worker. Nota admitted the motivation was anger over the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Mike Davis, founder of the Article III Project, contrasted the DOJ’s response to Nota with their arrest of Houck and other pro-life protesters, stating,

“It is very clear that the Biden Justice Department has politicized and weaponized the FACE Act to go after pro-life Christians praying outside of abortion clinics like Mark Houck while turning a blind eye to violent felons terrorizing and badly damaging Catholic churches like Maeve Nota.

The Biden Justice Department tried to put Houck in prison for 11 years for defending his son while recommending no jail time for Nota after this deranged trans terrorist badly damaged a Catholic church, fought with the police, assaulted a church employee, and scared the hell out of a little old lady praying.”

Arielle Del Turco, assistant director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council (FRC), said that she believes the Biden administration’s words and actions, or inactions, have helped lead to a dramatic increase in vandalism against churches.

“I think even the public discourse — the way that President Biden talks about Christians or people who might oppose some of these secular dogmas — creates a really dangerous environment where people feel increasingly comfortable lashing out against churches,” she said.

It is clear that those in authority over the nation are targeting Catholics and allowing persecution of Christians and Catholics. This is unconstitutional and should be challenged in court.

What HHS is doing is obviously unconstitutional and the candle presents almost no risk. The Bible calls on Christians to pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2) and also tells us that it is God who is able to lead governments where He desires (Proverbs 21:1). It also teaches us that He is the only true King and we are to ultimately obey Him (Ephesians 1:20-23, 1 Timothy 6:13-16).

Leaders and staff at Saint Francis believe that keeping the candle lit obeys their religious convictions, and their duty to God is higher than their duty to HHS. In standing up to the government, Saint Francis followed its religious beliefs rather than obeying those who would try to infringe on them. As a result, Saint Francis prevailed and so too did the Constitution. Other Christians must have the courage to do the same when the government crosses the line.

Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.

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