Health and Human Services Folds Like a Cheap Suit Over Threat to Deny Catholic Hospital Accreditation

CREDIT: Pixabay

The Department of Health and Humans Services has folded on its demand that Catholic hospitals in Tulsa-based St. Francis Healthcare System extinguish the Eternal Flame candle burning it is chapel  Confronted with a lawsuit that it was doomed to lose over an indefensible position contrary to law, HHS’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services agreed to grant a waiver to the bizarre inspection finding that concluded that a single beeswax candle on a wall sconce enclosed in glass constituted a fire hazard to patients.

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Wednesday, I reported on how HHS was poised to pull the accreditation of the St. Francis Healthcare System; see Xavier Becerra and HHS Threaten to Strip Catholic Hospital of Accreditation Over Chapel Candle. This hospital network, the twelfth largest in the nation, runs five hospitals in eastern Oklahoma serving about 400,000 patients annually. Many of the patients use Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP to cover medical expenses. To retain accreditation and the ability to serve patients reliant on Federal programs, the hospital had to pass a safety inspection.

Because the hospital is Catholic, it has a chapel. The chapel has a candle that burns 24-hours a day. Under Canon Law, the candle has to meet certain specifications (like 50% beeswax). It can’t be replaced with a light bulb or an emoji. Whether the inspector had a hard-on for Catholics or he’d been told to f*** with the “mackerel snappers” is a matter of speculation. But the inspector made a beeline for the chapel and cited the hospital for a fire code violation even though the candle had been in the same place since 1960 without complain or conflagration.

Health and Human Services Folds Like a Cheap Suit Over Threat to Deny Catholic Hospital Accreditation
St. Francis Hospital Chapel, Tulsa, OK. CREDIT: Becket Law

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The hospital appealed. HHS denied the appeal and gave the hospital the choice between shuttering the chapel or keeping accreditation. It was at this point that The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty intervened.

Just three days after sending its “pre-litigation” letter to HHS, which included the zinger, “If we go to court, you will lose. I write in the hope that you will see reason (or at least the law) and we can skip to the easy part,” HHS beat a hasty retreat.

“The game was simply not worth the candle for HHS,” Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, the religious freedom law firm representing the hospital, told The Daily Signal in a written statement Friday. “It realized it would be playing with fire in court if it stood by its absurd demand, so it chose wisely. We are glad Saint Francis’s can continue to serve those most in need while keeping the faith.”

“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 The Daily Signal in an emailed statement Friday. “CMS met with the hospital and accreditation organization, and issued a waiver to allow the hospital to mitigate the potential fire risk and correct the safety finding. The hospital will work with the accrediting organization on next steps.”

“That’s bureaucrat-speak for ‘we’re backing down quickly,’” Windham, the Becket lawyer, told The Daily Signal in a telephone interview Friday.

“Saint Francis is grateful that this is resolved and they are able to focus on serving God and serving their community,” she added. Yet Windham also pushed back on the suggestion that CMS had not attacked Saint Francis’ religious freedom.

“Saint Francis appealed to CMS internally and pointed out that this is a religious liberty issue at length, and they still got a denial. It was after Becket got involved and it became public that they backed down,” she noted. “They knew about the religious liberty problem all along.”

Windham noted that there are other sources of fire in the hospital, but CMS only singled out the candle for further scrutiny.

“In this same inspection, they were OK with pilot lights in the kitchen and will gas dryers. It was just the candle that was the problem,” she said.

“Saint Francis takes fire safety very seriously,” Windham added. The candle is “way up on the wall, it’s inside two glass holders, it has a cap.” She noted that, due to CMS’ complaint, “There’s a sign that has gone up to let people know that there is a living flame in the chapel, and they will have some sort of altar rail.”

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There is no doubt that the Biden White House and its parent organization, the Obama administration, are implacably hostile to Christianity in general and public devotion to it specifically. It was Barack Obama who tried to convert the Constitutional Freedom of Religion into FDR’s Freedom of Worship. We have to be constantly on guard or this liberty will be snuffed out by the use of the regulatory power of the administrative state.

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