". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Biden Admin Relents on Candle Controversy Rather than Face Lawsuit

May 9, 2023

After threatening a Catholic hospital’s accreditation on April 20 over a glass-enclosed candle kept burning in a chapel, the Biden administration has abruptly folded. Last Tuesday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty warned it would pursue legal action on the hospital’s behalf unless the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) relented from its demand that the hospital extinguish the flame. Last Thursday, CMS clarified in a conference call that it would not require the hospital to extinguish the flame.

The controversy began after a February safety inspection necessary for Joint Commission accreditation cited the flame as a violation of federal safety codes. The candle, which is permitted by local fire authorities, sits on a brass base, enclosed in glass, under multiple fire sprinkler heads. Its location in a chapel places it far away from patient rooms and oxygen equipment. A candle has burned for 15 years at Saint Francis Hospital South in Tulsa and for 63 years at Saint Francis Hospital Yale Campus “without problem or concern.” Saint Francis is the largest hospital system in Oklahoma and the 12th largest in the nation.

That candle forms an essential part of Catholic religious observance. “The Code of Canon Law requires that wherever the Blessed Sacrament is kept, a special lamp must shine continuously,” noted Becket. Catholics believe the flame “represents the living presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament,” derived from the continuously burning lamp in the Mosaic tabernacle (Exodus 27:20-21).

“The completely contained flame — which is removed from patient rooms and medical equipment — does not pose a fire risk,” said Arielle Del Turco, Family Research Council’s director of the Center for Religious Liberty. “Something else is going on here. America’s increasingly secular culture sadly fails to understand or respect even widely-held religious beliefs, and this is paving the way for the Joint Commission and HHS to run roughshod over religious freedom.”

For the federal government to respect this practice, it is not necessary for any agency or even any official to approve or espouse this practice and belief. Nor must they assess that such a belief is widely held. As a Baptist, I disagree with Catholics on the doctrine, nature, requirements, and even the name of the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist). There might be many officials in the Biden administration with a wide variety of religious beliefs — including secularists — that disagree with Catholic belief and practice on this point.

But none of that matters here. What matters is whether the Catholic hospital system believes it (they do), and whether the federal government may ignore that belief in applying accreditation requirements for Medicare and Medicaid funding (they may not). Nothing about this enclosed flame in the chapel makes Saint Francis less qualified to service low-income and elderly patients who might have nowhere else to go.

“If we go to court, you will lose,” Becket attorneys warned CMS. “This case is not a close call.” Not only did the safety inspector seem to go on a fishing expedition to fail the Catholic hospital over its perpetual flame, they noted, but:

“CMS is wrong on the applicable fire-safety rules. CMS has flagrantly violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by punishing Saint Francis’s longstanding, uninterrupted free exercise of its religion by maintaining an enclosed candle in its chapels. And CMS has inexplicably failed to apply a separate ‘unreasonable hardship’ exception from its (incorrect) code interpretation.”

In a conference call two days later, CMS and Saint Francis agreed to remove the citation over the sanctuary flame and that “Saint Francis will post a sign outside all of its chapels where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed and the living flame maintained, indicating the presence of the flame and restricting unauthorized persons from entering within the space near to the flame.” The hospital also agreed to “install a rail, rope, or like barrier” separate visitor space from the flame’s location.

“We take fire safety very seriously, and we also take our faith very seriously,” said Saint Francis.

The Biden administration may not take protections for faith very seriously, but that’s what the court system is for. And whether the DOJ lawyers were uninterested in pursuing this case, too embarrassed by its blatant and petty violation of religious freedom, tired of losing, or simply trying to lay low after their recent targeting of Catholics, in this instance the mere threat of a lawsuit forced them to fold a painfully weak hand.

The CMS decision to avoid a lawsuit comes within days of a similar decision in Colorado, where state lawyers agreed not to enforce a recent legislative ban on abortion reversal medication rather than face a humiliating and damaging legal defeat. The growing trend signifies just how indefensible the leftist authoritarian streak has become and the utility in shrewd legal action to restrict it. However, the trend could also become a double-edged sword, giving leftist officials a plausible precedent to not enforce pro-life or pro-parent laws when sued by left-wing activists.

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.