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Catholic Hospital Threatens To Sue U.S. Government Over Order to Extinguish Sanctuary Candle

A federal surveyor deemed that a sanctuary candle (back right) in the chapel at Saint Francis Hospital South in Oklahoma needs to be extinguished for safety purposes. (Photo: Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A Catholic health system in Oklahoma has threatened to sue the federal government for violating its First Amendment rights over a decision to deny re-accreditation to one of its hospitals if it doesn’t follow an order to extinguish a long-lit sanctuary candle for safety purposes.

Following a hospital inspection in February, a federal surveyor deemed that a living flame in the Saint Francis Hospital South chapel — part of the Saint Francis Health System — violated code, as it is “an open flame burning unattended 24/7.” The surveyor issued a citation demanding the candle be extinguished.

Saint Francis Health Systems and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, meanwhile, argue that Saint Francis cannot extinguish the flame as a matter of faith since the living flame in the chapel is “a sign of the living presence of Jesus.” As such, they claim the order is a violation of the First Amendment.

Lori Windham, vice president and senior director at Becket, who wrote a letter to the federal government on April 28 regarding the Saint Francis order, called the demand to extinguish the candle “absurd and unlawful.” She threatened legal action if the order isn’t rescinded.

“The government has a simple choice: Either stop this attack on Saint Francis’ faith or expect a legal firestorm,” Windham said in a May 2 statement.

In her letter, Windham highlighted the negative impact of denying Saint Francis re-accreditation.

“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),” Windham said in the letter.

Barry Steichen, executive vice president, and COO of Saint Francis Health, said the order is unfair.

“We’re being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshiping God in the chapel, but they go hand in hand,” Steichen said in a May 2 statement. “Our work depends upon our faith in the living God, and the sanctuary candle represents this to us.”

Founded in 1960, Saint Francis Health Systems operates five hospitals in eastern Oklahoma, serving more than 400,000 patients each year. Saint Francis Hospital South, in particular, is the largest hospital in the state of Oklahoma and the 12th-largest hospital in the nation.

According to Windham’s letter, since the hospital opened, it has traditionally had a sanctuary candle with a living flame as an act of worship. Pictures of the candle in question show a single encased candle mounted on the wall of the Saint Francis Hospital South chapel. The encased candle rests in a bronze holder, which is affixed to the wall of the chapel and covered by a bronze top.

A sprinkler system is visible on the ceiling above the candle. And Windham noted in her letter that the flame is far removed from medical equipment and patients. She also questioned the timing of the order, given that the government and local fire marshal have repeatedly approved the candle through the years.

The surveyor carried out the inspection for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services.

An April 20 letter from the government to Saint Francis Health System denied the hospital’s appeal and request for reconsideration of the order. In the letter, an HHS official broke down the government’s decision, citing that the hospital must meet “life safety from fire requirements” and emphasizing the need for the candle to be supervised, as the surveyor noted in his assessment.

The letter, in part, states that the decision is consistent with the agency’s policy memorandum for nursing homes, specifically, that lighted candles must be “placed in a substantial candle holder and supervised at all times they are lighted,” adding a recommendation that Saint Francis Health Systems engage in a plan of correction process with a government official.

Still, Windham argued in her April 28 response letter that the government’s actions are unjust, alleging that the citation is inconsistent with applicable fire-safety rules.

“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,” Windham stated in the letter.