The federal government recently told a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma to either blow out a small candle or stop serving elderly, disabled, and low-income patients. Saint Francis Health System, the twelfth largest hospital in the nation, keeps, with many prudent safeguards, a sacred candle always lit inside its hospital chapels, in accordance with its Catholic faith.
After a hospital inspection in February, the government said a single candle was too dangerous and now threatens to strip the hospital of the ability to accept Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP if it does not extinguish the flame. Becket sent a letter to the Biden administration reminding it that Saint Francis has the right to religious freedom and warning federal bureaucrats to leave the candle alone.
Saint Francis Health System is a premier health system with five hospitals in Eastern Oklahoma. The health system cares for nearly 400,000 patients each year, has given away more than $650 million dollars in free medical care in the past five years, and employs more than 11,000 Oklahomans. Saint Francis’s mission is to extend the presence and healing ministry of Christ. In addition to providing compassionate and top-notch care to its patients, Saint Francis lives out its religious mission by maintaining multiple chapels throughout its hospitals, each of which has been blessed by the local Bishop.
Since Saint Francis opened its doors in 1960, the health system has had a sanctuary candle with a living flame as an act of worship. The flame, far removed from medical equipment and patients, is shielded by two glass holders, sits on a brass basin, is affixed to a wall and has a brass top covering it, with many sprinkler heads above it. For Catholics, the living flame is a sign of the living presence of Jesus. The federal government now threatens to tell all patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP that they can no longer receive care at Saint Francis—all over a candle.
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“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,” said Barry Steichen, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Saint Francis. “We’re being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshipping God in the chapel, but they go hand in hand. To share a quotation of Saint Francis Xavier that is familiar to many Saint Francis staff, ‘it is not the actual physical exertion that counts towards one’s progress, nor the nature of the task, but by the spirit of faith with which it is undertaken.’ Our work depends upon our faith in the living God, and the sanctuary candle represents this to us.”
Earlier this year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), deemed one of these candles too great a threat to hospital safety. Even though the candle is encased in glass and covered on top and has been approved repeatedly by the government and the local fire marshal, Saint Francis was told to snuff it out. If it does not extinguish the flame, the government will revoke Saint Francis’ ability to see Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP patients, cutting off critical healthcare access for thousands of people in Oklahoma. Saint Francis asked the government four separate times for a waiver, explaining that its sanctuary candle is not a danger to anyone.
To stop this attack, Becket and the law firm Yetter Coleman LLP sent a letter to HHS explaining how its actions violated federal law. The government is trampling on the hospital’s religious duty to maintain a flame in its chapels and its belief that the candle represents the eternal presence of Jesus. It is also trying to separate Saint Francis’s religious activities from its health care. There are over a dozen similar flames around the hospital kept lit for other reasons—like pilot lights for stoves and ovens, flames in gas water heaters—that the government has made accommodations for. Saint Francis should not be threatened with extreme penalties over its religious candle.
“The government’s demand is absurd and unlawful—it is targeting Saint Francis’ sincere beliefs without any good reason,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The government has a simple choice: either stop this attack on Saint Francis’ faith or expect a legal firestorm.”