Biden Admin Backs Down in Standoff With Catholic Hospital Over Chapel Candle

Biden Admin Backs Down in Standoff With Catholic Hospital Over Chapel Candle
A lit candle in the chapel of Saint Francis Hospital South is at the center of a matter of religious liberty. (Saint Francis Health System.)
Ross Muscato

The Biden administration announced on May 5 that it is stepping back from a previous decision demanding that a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma remove a lit candle from its chapel—a practice and observance sacred to Catholics—or lose its ability to accept Medicare, Medicaid, or Children’s Health (CHIP) patients.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), had ruled in April that the candle, which has burned continuously for 15 years at Saint Francis Hospital South in Tulsa, was a safety hazard—even though a local fire marshal cleared the candle and CMS permitted other flames, including pilot lights, in the hospital.

CMS said its decision was based on the findings of an independent group, The Joint Commission, which reviews hospitals to determine if they meet the standards necessary to be accredited to receive Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP patients.

The 12th largest U.S. health care network, Saint Francis Health System is the Catholic owner and operator of Saint Francis Hospital South, eight other hospitals, and 110 clinics in Oklahoma. Saint Francis appealed the CMS decree and sought a reasonable accommodation.

CMS denied Saint Francis’ request in a letter dated April 20.

Yet, following widespread protest, media attention, and a pre-litigation letter a leading religious liberty legal group, Becket Law, along with Yetter Coleman LLP, sent to CMS on behalf of Saint Francis, alleging that prohibiting the candle was a violation of the First Amendment free exercise of religion clause, the agency said it is now open to working with Saint Francis to find an arrangement that permits the burning candle to stay.

Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel for Becket Law, said that CMS' adjusting its position is a win for religious freedom.

“The decision of CMS shows that religious liberty protections extend to practicing your faith, and that includes providing health care and worship in a chapel,” Windham told The Epoch Times. “These protections apply to everyone. Today it’s a candle. Tomorrow it could be something else.

“And so, a good decision today for Saint Francis is a good decision for religious believers across the country.”

In a statement that CMS shared with The Epoch Times, the agency said: “CMS is aware of a safety finding involving a fire risk, made by an independent accrediting organization, issued to a hospital in Oklahoma. CMS met with the hospital and accreditation organization, and issued a waiver to allow the hospital to mitigate the potential fire risk and correct the safety finding. The hospital will work with the accrediting organization on next steps.”

Windham said Saint Francis has put up a sign to let people know there is a flame in the chapel and plans to put a rail or other barrier in place to prevent people from getting too close.

Saint Francis Health System, with its stated mission to “extend the presence and healing ministry of Christ to all who seek its services,” treats approximately 400,000 people annually and has delivered more than $650 million in free care to people in need over the past five years.

The organization employs more than 10,000 and has a volunteer force of 700.

Infringing on Religious Freedom

A lit candle in a chapel is a fundamental component of the Catholic canon law, of the rules and ways the church governs itself.

As was the case before the CMS judgment, the candle is set within two layers of glass, on a metal base with a metal top, and affixed to the wall.

When CMS said the candle had to go, it struck at the spiritual and cultural heart and foundation of the purpose of the Saint Francis Health System.

“We’re being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshiping God in the chapel, but they go hand in hand,” said Barry Steichen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Saint Francis Health System, in a May 3 statement.

“Our work depends upon our faith in the living God, and the sanctuary candle represents this to us.”

The 13-page pre-litigation letter sent to CMS asserted that prohibiting the candle was an example of consistently applying rules and regulations and violating religious freedom.

“You have threatened to deny accreditation because Saint Francis keeps a candle—an eternal flame—in its hospital sanctuary,” wrote Windham. “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.”