@LoriWindham / twitter

St. Francis Health Care Systems in Oklahoma is celebrating victory after the Biden administration announced it would be backing down from its threats of rescinding the hospital’s federal accreditation due to a sacred candle in a hospital chapel. In February, The Joint Commission (TJC), the independent accreditation body that oversees the healthcare system, stated that a chapel tabernacle candle in Saint Francis Hospital South in Tulsa posed a fire hazard and required the hospital to snuff it out. For Catholics, a sanctuary candle remains unextinguished as a reminder of Jesus’s constant presence. The candle in question had previously been on the grounds for 15 years without any trouble. The system attempted numerous appeals through The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for a reasonable accommodation due to the system’s religious convictions, but all appeals were rejected. The hospital system was then warned that if it did not snuff out the candle, it would be in danger of having its federal accreditation removed, leaving the hospital unable to t serve the poor and disabled in its community. 

The system then sought help from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Becket Vice President and Senior Counsel Lori Windham sent a letter to various federal agencies threatening a lawsuit for violating the system’s religious freedom. “In twenty-five days, you will cripple the operations of the premiere hospitals in the State of Oklahoma simply because they keep a candle in hospital chapels,” the letter began. Windham went on to add, “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.” The letter also outlined the hospital system’s use of chapel candles in the past and the many ways the healthcare system had served its community. “If we go to court, you will lose,” Windham warned. “I write in the hope that you will see the reason (or at least the law), and we can skip to the easy part.”

On May 4th, days after Becket sent its letter, CMS sent a letter to the hospital system stating it would agree to a waiver. “As per our discussion earlier today, and after CMS’s further discussion with TJC, CMS is providing St. Francis South Hospital a waiver for the living flame of the sanctuary candle in the chapel of this hospital. This waiver is contingent upon the hospital providing a plan of correction to TJC that includes taking some simple, appropriate steps to mitigate fire risks…” Lori Windham praised the decision, tweeting that the feds had “seen the light.” “The government has seen the light and has abandoned its attempt to force an Oklahoma hospital to blow out a small candle or stop serving elderly, disabled, and low-income patients. HHSGov has told Saint Francis that it can keep its living flame—a sacred candle housed in the hospital chapels,” she wrote. Speaking for the hospital system, Dr. Cliff Robertson, chief executive officer, said, “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.” 

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