Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | May 4, 2023

Biden administration threatens Tulsa hospital over candle

Ray Carter

The Biden administration has threatened to strip Saint Francis Hospital South of accreditation that allows it to serve Medicare and Medicaid patients because the hospital maintains an eternally lit candle as a religious symbol in its hospital chapel, according to a legal organization representing the hospital.

Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ threat to strip accreditation from Saint Francis, a Catholic health system, violates both federal law and the First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

In a letter sent to Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Windham put the issue bluntly: “If we go to court, you will lose.”

“You have threatened to deny accreditation because Saint Francis keeps a candle—an eternal flame—in its hospital sanctuary,” Windham wrote. “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.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has “a long and successful history” of suing government entities for violations of citizens’ religious freedoms, says “this is one of the most egregious violations we have ever seen.”

Two months ago, for the first time since Saint Francis’s founding in 1960, a federal surveyor declared the sanctuary candle a fire hazard and issued a citation demanding that it be snuffed out, Windham said. She said that during the inspection “the surveyor expressly asked to go to the chapel to see if there was a living flame.”

The candle is encased in a thick glass globe, which is encased in a second glass globe, covered by a bronze top that fits over the second globe, and resting in a bronze holder, which is affixed to the wall of the chapel. Sprinkler heads also surround the candle.

“This is a blatant violation of Saint Francis’s rights,” Windham wrote. “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.”

Windham noted 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 Saint Francis controversy has arisen even as state lawmakers in Oklahoma have voted to strengthen state law to protect religious entities from being targeted by state or local governments. While that law will not impact federal entities, it restricts state and local governments in Oklahoma.

Senate Bill 404 states, “It shall be deemed a substantial burden to exclude any person or entity from participation in or receipt of governmental funds, benefits, programs, or exemptions based solely on the religious character or affiliation of the person or entity.”

The bill passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 38-7 vote and passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 64-27 vote. Gov. Kevin Stitt signed it into law on May 2.

“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,” said state Sen. Julie Daniels, a Bartlesville Republican who authored the bill.

“I’m glad to see the governor sign into law this no-nonsense piece of legislation that simply states that people or entities cannot be discriminated against solely on their religious character or affiliation,” said state Rep. Jon Echols, the Oklahoma City Republican who was House author of the bill. “Put gender, race, or any other factor in place of the word religion and this would not even be an issue. This simply adds religion to this protection under the law.”

Democratic lawmakers decried the bill’s passage.

State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, called SB 404 “a direct attack on the First Amendment freedoms of every Oklahoman” and the “very definition of religious tyranny.” State Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, claimed SB 404 “directly undermines the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by restricting the religious freedom of Oklahomans.”

SB 404 takes effect Nov. 1, 2023.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Loading Next