Biden Admin Threatens Catholic Hospital Funding over Single Burning Candle
On Thursday, news broke that the Biden administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is threatening to revoke the accreditation of a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma for allegedly presenting a safety hazard with a burning candle in the hospital’s chapel. The directive is being challenged by religious freedom and legal experts on the grounds that it violates the hospital’s right to religious free exercise.
On April 20, an agency known as the Joint Commission under HHS’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services sent a letter to Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, Okla. claiming that a single candle that is kept burning near a tabernacle in the hospital’s chapel violated federal safety codes and must be extinguished in order for the hospital to maintain its accreditation. Since Joint Commission accreditation is usually required for federal funding, this action could lead the hospital — which is currently the 12th largest in the nation — to lose funding through Medicare, Medicaid, or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
The candle in question is enclosed in a glass case inside an additional glass case with a brass top, with a fire sprinkler system installed nearby. Catholic teaching holds that a candle or lamp, known as the “Eternal Flame,” must be kept burning near a tabernacle containing the Eucharist “to indicate and honor the presence of Christ.” The ancient directive was first prescribed in Exodus 27:20-21, where God commanded that a lamp be kept burning in the sanctuary of the tabernacle.
Saint Francis Health System previously requested a waiver to allow the candle on four separate occasions, but each request was denied. In response to the denials, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the law firm Yetter Coleman LLP have threatened legal action against HHS on behalf of the hospital.
In a letter to HHS dated May 2, the Becket Fund noted that the flame has burned in the chapel for 15 years without any issues or complaints and has received the “long-standing approval” of the local fire marshal. “In requiring Saint Francis to extinguish its flame,” the letter went on to say, “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.”
This latest incident marks the second time in the last two months that the Biden administration has targeted Catholic religious services in health care facilities. In April, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center abruptly ordered a community of Franciscan Catholic priests to stop serving servicemembers and their families at the hospital just before Holy Week. In addition, parishioners at a traditional Catholic church in Virginia recently alleged that FBI agents appeared to collect license plate numbers in the church parking lot in February in the wake of a leaked FBI internal memo that asserted a connection between “racially or ethnically motivated, violent extremists” and “radical-traditional Catholic ideology.” Experts say these occurrences fit a pattern of hostility that the Biden administration has shown toward religious institutions and people of faith.
“The living flame in Saint Francis’s chapel is essential for the Eucharist’s presence and therefore essential for Saint Francis to operate as a distinctly Catholic hospital that serves all people,” Family Research Council’s Arielle Del Turco told The Washington Stand. “The completely contained flame — which is removed from patient rooms and medical equipment — does not pose a fire risk. 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.”
“This is either a terrible mistake or a deliberately authoritarian targeting of Catholic hospitals by bureaucrats who don’t care about anyone’s right to practice their faith,” Del Turco, who serves as the director of FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty, continued. “Either way, the Joint Commission and HHS ought to reverse course immediately and apologize to Saint Francis Health System for this ignorant misunderstanding of the Catholic faith and barbaric threat that would violate the First Amendment free exercise rights of Catholic hospitals.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.