Biden HHS threatens to strip Catholic hospital of Medicare accreditation over sanctuary candle


The federal government has warned a Catholic hospital that it could lose its ability to serve low-income and elderly patients if it doesn’t extinguish its sanctuary candle, which the hospital keeps lit per Catholic tradition. 

As the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty explained in a May 2 letter to the United States Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies, the St. Francis Health System in Oklahoma keeps a sacred candle lit inside its chapels in accordance with its Catholic faith. The letter noted that the flame signifies “the faithful presence of Jesus 
Christ” and the Roman Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law “requires that wherever the Blessed Sacrament is kept, a special lamp must shine continuously.”

The letter detailed how, earlier this year, a surveyor with The Joint Commission, an accrediting organization that determines if proper conditions for Medicare and Medicaid are met, visited St. Francis South Hospital. Upon discovering the candle, the surveyor informed the hospital that the candle is a fire safety hazard and that if the hospital did not extinguish it, then it would lose its accreditation and thereby no longer have the ability to accept patients under Medicare, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

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Becket’s letter follows an April 20 letter from HHS’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expressing agreement with the deficiency citation and instructing the facility to correct it after the hospital requested an appeal and reconsideration regarding the citation.  

In addition to outlining the situation, Becket promised to file an emergency lawsuit if the agencies did not “cease and desist.” The letter accused the government agencies of violating the Religious Freedom Act and the First Amendment rights of the St. Francis Health System.

“Now, you put not just Saint Francis Health System in peril but the entire State of Oklahoma and any person in need of Saint Francis Health System’s preeminent care, all because Saint Francis maintains a single, enclosed, and reverently kept eternal flame in its chapels,” the letter reads. 

In response to a Thursday inquiry from The Christian Post, a spokesperson for CMS informed the outlet that it is aware of a safety finding involving a fire risk made by an independent accrediting organization to the Oklahoma-based hospital. CMS confirmed to CP that it is “working with the hospital’s accrediting organization to develop options to mitigate the potential fire risk and remove the safety finding.”

According to the law firm’s letter, the candle has burned for 15 years in the hospital sanctuary without any issues and regularly passes reviews by the local fire marshal. During the hospital inspection conducted by TJC, the surveyor came across “a lit candle with open flame burning unattended 24/7,” which he believed ran afoul of the requirement for candles that they are “placed in a substantial candle holder and supervised at all times they are lighted.”

The law firm included a picture of the candle encased in two glass globes and with a bronze cover on top. In addition, the letter noted that the candle holder is affixed to the wall and that the chapel ceiling has multiple sprinkler heads.

“The government’s demand is absurd and unlawful — it is targeting Saint Francis’ sincere beliefs without any good reason. The government has a simple choice: either stop this attack on Saint Francis’ faith or expect a legal firestorm,” Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement.

Barry Steichen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of St. Francis, released a statement explaining how William K. Warren Sr. and Natalie Warren founded the hospital over 60 years ago as a gift to the people of Oklahoma as well an act of gratitude and service to God. 

“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 maintained. 

Steichen believes that the federal government is asking St. Francis to “choose between serving those in need and worshiping God in the chapel.” The hospital administrator contended that the two 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,’” he asserted. “Our work depends upon our faith in the living God, and the sanctuary candle represents this to us.”

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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