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HHS relents, Catholic hospital can keep sanctuary candle

St. Francis Hospital, Oklahoma, Chapel and sanctuary candle

Courtesy of Saint Francis Health System

J-P Mauro - published on 05/05/23

After an inspection by HHS, St. Francis Hospital's accreditation was placed in jeopardy when they refused to extinguish a sign of Catholic faith.

A Catholic hospital’s accreditation was in jeopardy after the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took umbrage at a lit sanctuary candle in the building’s chapel. The St. Francis hospital of Oklahoma, which stands as the 12th largest hospital in the nation, sought help from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and intended to take the HHS to court. Before the court battle began, however, Becket announced that HHS relented and has stopped pursuing the matter, before it could go to court.

According to Crux, the situation arose after the HHS sent an inspector to St. Francis Hospital in February. Soon after, St. Francis Healthcare System, which runs a dozen hospitals and clinics in Oklahoma, was sent an order to extinguish the flame or face the loss of their accreditation, meaning they would no longer be allowed to treat those enrolled in government sponsored health plans. The letter cited “an open flame burning unattended 24/7.” 

It is estimated that the St. Francis Health System employs 11,000 people and cares for 400,000 patients annually. In the last five years, the organization has provided more than $650 million in free medical care for patients in need who are unable to cover their costs.

St. Francis and Becket intended to argue that the hospital, which is a Catholic institution, could not be made to extinguish the flame, because it is a matter of faith protected by the First Amendment. In the Catholic faith, a sanctuary candle is installed above or near a tabernacle and is lit to indicate the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in consecrated hosts housed within the tabernacle

In a letter to the government, Lori Windham, vice president and senior director at Becket, called the order “absurd and unlawful.” She wrote: 

“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).”

St. Francis further provided a picture of the candle in question, which can be seen encased in glass, locked in position on a brass stand, with a brass cover protecting the top. The candle is reportedly situated underneath the room’s fire suppression system and nowhere near any medical equipment. 

St. Francis Hospital, Oklahoma, Sanctuary Candle
The sanctuary candle in question, in the chapel at St. Francis Hospital.

The Washington Examiner points out that the candle has been burning for 15 years without incident; meanwhile some facilities under St. Francis Health System’s auspices have had their sanctuary candles lit for nearly 63 years.

In an interview with Fox News, Barry Steichen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Saint Francis, lamented that the presence of the candle has been called into question after 60 years. He wrote: 

“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,” he continued. “We’re being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshiping God in the chapel, but they go hand-in-hand.”

On May 5, Windham Tweeted that the matter had been settled outside of court. The HHS has decided not to pursue the matter any further, allowing St. Francis Hospital to keep their sanctuary candle lit, as it has been for 15 years. She wrote:

In a May 5 press release, Windham called the entire situation a “game” played by the federal government in an attempt to “intimidate” St. Francis to extinguishing their display of faith. She said:

“The game was simply not worth the candle for HHS. It realized that it would be playing with fire in court if it stood by its absurd demand, so it chose wisely. We are glad Saint Francis can continue to serve those most in need while keeping the faith.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Cliff Robertson, chief executive officer of Saint Francis, hailed the efforts of Becket, as well as thanking the public for their show of support:

“At the heart of Saint Francis’ mission is love for God and man. The living flame of our chapel candle indicates to all who enter our hospitals that we will serve them with religious devotion as Christ commands us. We are grateful for the support of Becket and Yetter Coleman, of the Oklahoma Delegation, and of countless persons all throughout the nation, and we are grateful for The Joint Commission and HHS’s recognition of our Religious Liberties.”

MedicineReligious FreedomUnited States
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