Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, Okla. received a warning from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for burning a sacred candle in one of its hospital chapels. HHS threatened to take away the system’s Medicaid/Medicare funding if the hospital doesn’t extinguish the flame, and now Saint Francis is suing to keep the candle lit.
The system is a Catholic faith-based organization and the 12th largest hospital network in the country. It always keeps a candle lit in its hospital chapels to help with the grieving process. But The Joint Commission (TJC) cited one hospital in February because it found the candle to be a safety hazard. The TJC is an independent accrediting organization whose findings are often used to meet conditions for Medicaid and Medicare certification with HHS. The agency told the hospital in a letter that it would lose CMS funding if it didn’t adjust the flame.
According to government regulations, all hospital candles must be “placed in a substantial candle holder and supervised at all times [while] they are lighted.”
The hospital submitted a waiver regarding the candle, which is encased in glass and covered on top, explaining that the local fire department has approved it in the past, but the motion was denied.
Becket Law, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty, is now suing the agency to appeal the ruling.
“There are over a dozen similar flames around the hospital kept lit for other reasons — like pilot lights for stoves and ovens, flames in gas water heaters — that the government has made accommodations for,” the firm wrote in a news release.
“The government’s demand is absurd and unlawful — it is targeting Saint Francis’s sincere beliefs without any good reason,” said Becket vice president and senior counsel Lori Windham. “The government has a simple choice: either stop this attack on Saint Francis’s faith or expect a legal firestorm.”
CMS responded to the letter of appeal late last month, which affirmed the agency’s decision. The department maintained that the flame is a hazard because it is unsupervised and burns 24/7, which violates HHS policy.
“CMS is aware of a safety finding involving a fire risk, made by an independent accrediting organization, issued to a hospital in Oklahoma,” a CMS spokesperson told Becker’s Hospital Review. “CMS is working with the hospital’s accrediting organization to develop options to mitigate the potential fire risk and remove the safety finding.”
The law firm also wrote a letter on May 2 to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra stating that the ruling violates the hospital’s First Amendment rights. It is asking CMS to either grant a waiver “now (voluntarily), or after a court order (expensively).”
“We’re being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshiping God in the chapel, but they go hand in hand,” Barry Steichen, the health system’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in the firm’s news release. “Our work depends upon our faith in the living God, and the sanctuary candle represents this to us.”