Blog Post

Biden Admin Caves on Sanctuary Lamp Battle

The federal government wisely backed down on an ultimatum it gave to Saint Francis Health System in Oklahoma to either extinguish the sanctuary lamp in its chapel, which it deemed to be a fire hazard, or stop serving elderly, disabled, and low-income patients.

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), contacted Saint Francis Health System in Oklahoma after a recent inspection and said the sanctuary lamp candle in the chapel, which is always kept lit in recognition of the Presence of Jesus in the tabernacle, posed a threat to hospital safety. Even though the candle has been approved repeatedly by the government and the local fire marshal, Saint Francis was told to extinguish it. If it refused, the government threatened to strip the hospital of the ability to care for patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP.

Saint Francis Health System is a premier health system with five hospitals in Eastern Oklahoma. The health system cares for nearly 400,000 patients each year, has given away more than $650 million dollars in free medical care in the past five years, and employs more than 11,000 Oklahomans. Saint Francis’ mission is to extend the presence and healing ministry of Christ. In addition to providing compassionate and excellent care to its patients, Saint Francis lives out its religious mission by maintaining multiple chapels throughout its hospitals, all blessed by the local Bishop.

The government hastily abandoned its demands days after the hospital’s counsel sent a biting letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on May 2, alleging the Biden administration was encroaching on the Catholic hospital system's First Amendment rights.

"If we go to court, you will lose. I write in the hope that you will see reason (or at least the law) and we can skip to the easy part," the hospital's counsel said. "[Y]ou 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 continued. "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."

To have cut off the hospital’s accreditation for Medicare and Medicaid would have caused irreparable financial loss to their institutions. "This is a blatant violation of Saint Francis’s rights,” the attorney wrote.

The Biden Administration wisely decided to quit the fight.

"I've been doing religious liberty work for a long time, and I was shocked," said Lori Windham, Vice President and Senior Counsel for Becket to Fox News.  "It's one thing to say you have a candle here, let's work on it. It's another thing to say that the people who need care won't be able to get it because you have a living flame in your sanctuary,”

She added: “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.”

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