A blatant violation of the First Amendment and religious freedom has occurred at a hospital in Oklahoma. This egregious violation is at the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS), Xavier Becerra. His directive also violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This satanic and needless order is infuriating.

The same law firm that represented Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor is now representing St. Francis Health System in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Becket Law Firm defends religious liberty – and they win their cases. Just look at the victorious outcome for Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor! Now, Becket Law Firm is representing Saint Francis Health System, a Catholic, not-for-profit health system in Oklahoma. The HHS has required that a candle in the hospital’s chapel be extinguished. This same candle has been lit since 1960 and has not ever caused a problem, in fact, it is in compliance with local fire codes. This candle is not near any medical equipment. It is in the chapel shielded with medical glass doors and a brass top. It is reported that the Fire Marshall never had a problem with it.

The St. Francis Health System treats around 400,000 patients every year and employs 11,000 Oklahomans. If the candle is not extinguished in the hospital chapel, then the HHS will revoke the hospital’s approval to care for patients on Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP. This violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act puts thousands of lives at risk.

The candle is a sanctuary candle that is consistently kept lit when the Eucharist is present in the tabernacle. For Catholics, it is a living flame that represents the living presence of Jesus. The fact that the HHS wants to hold this sanctuary candle hostage is insane. Since 1960, no federal agency has ever had a problem with this candle and the practice of the Catholic faith in a Catholic hospital that provides life-saving care to thousands upon thousands of patients regardless of religion, race or creed. If the patient is a living soul, St. Francis Hospital will treat them. But the federal government wants to make them STOP.

Lori Windham, the Chief Counsel for Becket Law Firm signed a letter that was sent to Secretary Xavier Becerra and the Oklahoma U.S. Senators, among others. Here are some excerpts from that letter:

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.

For decades, Saint Francis has run a highly regarded health system in Oklahoma in accordance with, and indeed driven by, its Catholic faith. For decades, also inspired by its religious mission, Saint Francis has provided many millions of dollars per year in free healthcare to its community. For decades, it has provided high-quality care to patients receiving Medicare and Medicaid. And for decades, Saint Francis has maintained chapels on its hospital campuses exclusively for religious worship—always, as dictated by its faith, under the continuously burning light of a sanctuary candle, enclosed in a lamp and suspended before the Tabernacle. Now, you 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. Two months ago, and for the first time since Saint Francis’s founding in 1960, a surveyor from one of the federal government’s official hospital accreditors took issue with the sanctuary candleand issued a fire-safety citation demanding that it be snuffed out.

Saint Francis cannot do this as a matter of faith. And so, in twenty-five days, the federal government intends to disaccredit (and thereby effectively shutter) this premier health system, which includes the number one hospital in Oklahoma and the12th largest hospital in the nation. All because Saint Francis refuses to abandon its religious beliefs and extinguish the sanctuary lamp.

This is a blatant violation of Saint Francis’s rights. The citation is inconsistent with the applicable fire-safety rules, with which Saint Francis complies. The false choice put to Saint Francis violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment. And a separate statutory exemption for unreasonable hardship applies. Saint Francis’s rights are so clearly established that continued violations will result in not just a court order, but personal liability for the individuals involved in the decision.

The Code of Canon Law is the law that governs the Catholic Church internationally and is adopted into courts of law. Code of Canon Law 940 requires that wherever the Blessed Sacrament is kept, a special lamp must shine continuously. This special lamp is known as the sanctuary candle. The Department of Health and Human Services is crossing the line. Truth will always prevail. The HHS will lose this case if they decide to withhold the care of patients who are on Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP. The federal government is threatening to put thousands of lives at risk over a tradition that has been kept aflame since 1960 without any problems.

Sancturary Candle at St. Francis Health System chapel. Courtesy of Becket Law Firm.

Editor’s Note: American Briefing will continue to follow this story as it develops.

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