The Department of Health and Human Services has rescinded its effective demand that a Catholic hospital snuff out a candle it keeps burning in the chapel, a candle that HHS called a threat to hospital safety.
“The game was simply not worth the candle for HHS,” Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, the religious freedom law firm representing the hospital, told The Daily Signal in a written statement Friday. “It realized it would be playing with fire in court if it stood by its absurd demand, so it chose wisely. We are glad Saint Francis’s can continue to serve those most in need while keeping the faith.”
Last month, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services sent a letter to the Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recommending that the hospital snuff out the candle to comply with “life safety from fire requirements,” or lose its accreditation.
According to the hospital, the candle is encased in glass and covered on top, and the local government and fire marshal repeatedly have approved the display for fire safety. CMS threatened to revoke Saint Francis’ ability to see patients under Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program if it did not snuff out the candle. The Catholic hospital system asked the federal government for a waiver four times.
“CMS is aware of a safety finding involving a fire risk, made by an independent accrediting organization, issued to a hospital in Oklahoma,” a CMS spokesperson told The Daily Signal in an emailed statement Friday. “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.”
“That’s bureaucrat-speak for ‘we’re backing down quickly,’” Windham, the Becket lawyer, told The Daily Signal in a telephone interview Friday.
“Saint Francis is grateful that this is resolved and they are able to focus on serving God and serving their community,” she added. Yet Windham also pushed back on the suggestion that CMS had not attacked Saint Francis’ religious freedom.
“Saint Francis appealed to CMS internally and pointed out that this is a religious liberty issue at length, and they still got a denial. It was after Becket got involved and it became public that they backed down,” she noted. “They knew about the religious liberty problem all along.”
Windham noted that there are other sources of fire in the hospital, but CMS only singled out the candle for further scrutiny.
“In this same inspection, they were OK with pilot lights in the kitchen and will gas dryers. It was just the candle that was the problem,” she said.
“Saint Francis takes fire safety very seriously,” Windham added. The candle is “way up on the wall, it’s inside two glass holders, it has a cap.” She noted that, due to CMS’ complaint, “There’s a sign that has gone up to let people know that there is a living flame in the chapel, and they will have some sort of altar rail.”
Becket had sent a letter dated Tuesday to CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, demanding that the agency rescind the order and respect the Catholic hospital system’s religious freedom.
“In twenty-five days, you will cripple the operations of the premier hospitals in the State of Oklahoma, simply because they keep a candle in hospital chapels,” the letter reads. “If you refuse to accredit Saint Francis Hospital South, it will result in such unreasonable financial losses to the Saint Francis Health System that it would abruptly and immediately jeopardize its services to the elderly, disabled, and low-income patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).”
“You have threatened to deny accreditation because Saint Francis keeps a candle—an eternal flame—in its hospital sanctuary,” the letter to CMS and HHS notes. “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.”
The letter notes that the flame has been burning without interruption since the hospital opened in 1960.
“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,” the letter notes.
Saint Francis Health System operates five hospitals in Eastern Oklahoma, providing care for nearly 400,000 patients a year and employing more than 11,000 Oklahomans, according to Becket. The system has given away more than $650 million in free medical care over the past five years.
“To this day, the Saint Francis torch insignia indicates a space of hope: a place where the medical and spiritual stand as one,” Barry Steichen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Saint Francis, said in a formal statement this week.
Windham, the vice president and senior counsel at Becket, gave the federal government a simple choice: “either stop this attack on Saint Francis’ faith or expect a legal firestorm.”
Now, some observers say, it appears the government chose the former option.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a telephone interview that took place after publication.
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