The Biden administration has threatened to revoke the accreditation of Saint Francis Hospital South, which permits the hospital to serve Medicare and Medicaid patients, because the hospital maintains a continuously burning candle as a religious symbol in its chapel, according to a legal organization representing the hospital, OCPA reports.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Saint Francis, claims that the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) attempt to remove the accreditation of Saint Francis, a Catholic healthcare system, violates federal law and the First Amendment rights guaranteed by the US Constitution.
Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, wrote to Xavier Becerra, the HHS secretary, stating that “If we go to court, you will lose.”
“For 15 years, that flame has burned without problem or concern in Saint Francis Hospital South in Tulsa; and for 63 years, the eternal flame has burned at Saint Francis Hospital Yale Campus, the largest hospital in the state of Oklahoma, without problem or concern. From the moment Saint Francis opened its doors in 1960, this flame has been maintained without interruption. 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 wrote.
Two months ago, a federal surveyor for the first time since Saint Francis’s founding in 1960 declared the sanctuary candle a fire hazard and issued a citation demanding that it be snuffed out. During the inspection, the surveyor expressly asked to go to the chapel to see if there was a living flame, Windham said.
Windham added that Becket has “a long and successful history” of suing government entities for violations of citizens’ religious freedoms and wrote that “this is one of the most egregious violations we have ever seen.”
As of publication, officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had not responded to a request for comment.
The controversy over Saint Francis has emerged at the same time as state lawmakers in Oklahoma have passed legislation to safeguard religious organizations from being targeted by state or local governments. Although the law will not affect federal entities, it does limit Oklahoma’s state and local governments.
Senate Bill 404 prohibits the government from excluding any person or entity from participation in or receipt of governmental funds, benefits, programs, or exemptions solely based on the religious character or affiliation of the person or entity.
State Sen. Julie Daniels, a Bartlesville Republican who authored the bill, said, “SB 404 clarifies that when the government makes a benefit available to private entities, it cannot exclude religious entities from accessing the benefit primarily based only or primarily on their character as a religious entity.”
Democratic lawmakers have criticized the bill’s passage, with State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, calling it “a direct attack on the First Amendment freedoms of every Oklahoman” and the “very definition of religious tyranny.”