A nonprofit dedicated to religious liberty is threatening the federal government with a legal battle after a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma was offered the choice of either extinguishing a sacred candle in its chapel or being stripped of its federal funding.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the law firm Yetter Coleman LLP fired off a letter to officials with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) this week, demanding that Saint Francis Health System be allowed to keep its sacred candle lit.
The Joint Commission, an independent organization whose findings are often used to meet conditions for Medicaid and Medicare certification with HHS-affiliated Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), told Saint Francis Health System following a hospital inspection in February that its solitary candle at Saint Francis Hospital South was a safety hazard and that it would lose its ability to accept Medicare, Medicaid or CHIP if the flame was not removed.
The letter maintained that the law requires flames be “placed in a substantial candle holder and supervised at all times they are lighted.”
The hospital entreated the agency in vain four times for a waiver regarding the candle, according to the Becket Fund, which noted that similar flames in the building such as pilot lights and those in gas stove heaters did not prove to be a problem.
“The government’s demand is absurd and unlawful — it is targeting Saint Francis’s sincere beliefs without any good reason,” Becket vice president and senior counsel Lori Windham said in a statement. “The government has a simple choice: either stop this attack on Saint Francis’s faith or expect a legal firestorm.”
In their May 2 letter to the Biden administration, the Becket Fund urged the government to back off the sacred candle, which is encased in glass, covered with brass and located near sprinklers far away from medical equipment. The letter warned the ultimatum violates federal law and threatens to “cripple the operations of the premiere hospitals in the State of Oklahoma, simply because they keep a candle in hospital chapels.”
St. Francis Health System operates five hospitals in eastern Oklahoma and employs 11,000 people, caring for approximately 400,000 patients annually and providing more than $650 million in free medical care to needy patients during the past five years.
“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,” Barry Steichen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Saint Francis, said in a statement.
“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,” Steichen continued. “We’re being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshiping God in the chapel, but they go hand-in-hand.”
A spokesperson for HHS told Fox News Digital that the department “is aware of a safety finding involving a fire risk, made by an independent accrediting organization, issued to a hospital in Oklahoma.”
“CMS is working with the hospital’s accrediting organization to develop options to mitigate the potential fire risk and remove the safety finding,” the spokesperson added.
However, the Becket Fund refuses to accept this response, with Windham claiming that “The government is playing a dangerous game of religious roulette with Saint Francis’s future.” She added that the government’s ultimatum “is a clear violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment.”
TheBecket Fund’s letter concluded by warning that if the government doesn’t back off its threat to strip Saint Francis of its federal funding, “then it should expect to be sued.”