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Biden admin backs down on threat to cut Catholic hospital funding over sacred candle

The administration's threat to pull Medicare, Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program funding over the burning of a gas-powered sacred candle within a Catholic hospital, could have far-reaching First Amendment implications.

Published: May 6, 2023 11:42pm

Updated: May 9, 2023 3:28pm

The Department of Health and Human Services is backing down on threats to pull vital government funding from Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, Okla., after previously tying funding to extinguishing an eternal gas-powered flame that regulators claim is a safety hazard.

After the hospital threatened legal action through The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the government reversed course on what seemed to be the latest development in a pattern of aggressive regulatory and criminal enforcement actions by the Biden administration against the Catholic Church.

"The government has seen the light and has abandoned its attempt to force an Oklahoma hospital to blow out a small candle or stop serving elderly, disabled and low-income patients," said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund public interest legal group, according to Fox News.

Saint Francis, a Catholic health system, always keeps a sacred candle lit within its hospital chapels, yet the Joint Commission, a nonprofit group that accredits thousands of hospitals across the country claimed in February that one particular flame was dangerous and instructed the healthcare system to extinguish it or face the loss of federal funding.

After the hospital appealed the decision to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services responded on April 20 with a letter affirming the Joint Commission's initial decision. Confirming that it agreed "with TJC's deficiency citation because a hospital must ensure that the life safety from fire requirements are met in accordance with 42 CFR §482.41(b)," CMS wrote: 

"We recommend that your facility engage with TJC on the plan of correction (evidence of standard compliance) process to address this deficiency. Accrediting organizations (AOs), such as TJC, must meet or exceed CMS' Conditions of Participation. Since AOs may exceed CMS standards, TJC may consider additional requirements as to what may be acceptable as part of the plan of correction process and may also advise on next steps if an acceptable plan of correction is not received."

Becket responded on May 2 in a letter addressed to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, others at the department, CMS and TJC. 

"In twenty-five days, you will cripple the operations of the [premier] hospitals in the State of Oklahoma, simply because they keep a candle in hospital chapels," Windham wrote before the government reversed its decision. "If you refuse to accredit Saint Francis Hospital South, it will result in such unreasonable financial losses to the Saint Francis Health System that it would abruptly and immediately jeopardize its services to the elderly, disabled, and low-income patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). 

"You have threatened to deny accreditation because Saint Francis keeps a candle — an eternal flame — in its hospital sanctuary. 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." 

If the case goes to court, "you will lose," the law firm had warned HHS.

In a press release detailing its plans to challenge the decision, the law firm similarly warned of a "legal firestorm," if HHS maintains its position. 

"Saint Francis Health System, the twelfth largest hospital in the nation, keeps, with many prudent safeguards, a sacred candle always lit inside its hospital chapels, in accordance with its Catholic faith," the release explained. "After a hospital inspection in February, the government said a single candle was too dangerous and now threatens to strip the hospital of the ability to accept Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP if it does not extinguish the flame." 

The sanctuary candle is "far from medical equipment and patients, is shielded by two glass holders, sits on a brass basin, is affixed to a wall and has a brass top covering it, with many sprinkler heads above it," according to the release.

"The government is trampling on the hospital's religious duty to maintain a flame in its chapels and its belief that the candle represents the eternal presence of Jesus," the law firm explained. "It is also trying to separate Saint Francis' religious activities from its health care. 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. Saint Francis should not be threatened with extreme penalties over its religious candle." 

"We're being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshiping God in the chapel, but they go hand in hand," said Barry Steichen, the health system's executive vice president and chief operating officer. "Our work depends upon our faith in the living God, and the sanctuary candle represents this to us.” 

Critics see a Biden administration pattern of hostility to the Catholic Church. In late 2022, House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) launched an inquiry into the suspected targeting of pro-life supporters by the Department of Justice through politicized enforcement policies. 

"Several recent actions by the Department reinforce the conclusion that the Justice Department is using its federal law enforcement authority as a weapon against the administration's political opponents," the then-ranking member of Judiciary wrote in a letter to Jacqueline Romero, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and Attorney General Merrick Garland. "Since the unprecedented leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Justice Department has politicized enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act."

Jordan and fellow committee member Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) highlighted an FBI raid on the home of Mark Houck, a Catholic who had been arrested for allegedly shoving a pro-abortion activist who was allegedly harassing his son.

"The Department's decision to arrest Houck, as well as the tactics used to effectuate the arrest, are troubling," the pair wrote. Houck's wife said the FBI "had about five guns pointed at my husband, myself and basically at my kids," the lawmakers recounted, adding that Houck's attorney "subsequently disclosed that the dawn raid was unnecessary because Houck had offered to appear voluntarily and the FBI targeted Houck 'solely to intimidate people of faith and pro-life Americans.'"

Houck was later acquitted by a Philadelphia jury in early 2023 on both federal charges filed in connection with the Oct. 13, 2021 altercation with the abortion clinic volunteer. 

In February of this year, the FBI was forced to retract an intelligence bulletin issued by its Richmond office suggesting Catholics who attended the traditional Latin language Mass posed a threat as white supremacists and had extremist tendencies. That memo was found to have been based on information from an array of left-leaning sources, including the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its ideological bias showed through in a footnote referring to a woman having a baby as a "pregnant person" rather than a mother.

Later that month, Missouri Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey and 19 other attorneys general joined Catholic Bishops protesting the religious profiling reflected in the leaked FBI memo.

In retracting the memo after it became public, the Bureau admitted it did not meet the "exacting standards" for a U.S. intelligence product. 

Kevin Brock, the former chief of FBI intelligence, told Just The News he was encouraged by the Bureau taking action on the memo, but said he was also deeply disturbed by the quality of the product and the example it set. 

"It is lazy, it is absurdly speculative, it provides no evidence for its thesis," Brock said, "and it relies exclusively on sources known to be aligned with the political left, such as the discredited Southern Poverty Law Center, Salon, and the Atlantic, that have been known to be habitually critical of the Catholic Church. That's not intelligence analysis. It's parroting."

Meanwhile, the eternal flame at former Democratic President John F. Kennedy's gravesite has not been publicly targeted for "correction" as a safety hazard. Kennedy was America's first Catholic president and the only Catholic to serve as commander-in-chief until Biden took office in 2021.

Biden's presidential candidacy and tenure have been filled with controversy questioning his fidelity to Church teachings. Biden was, for instance, denied Communion by a South Carolina priest based on his pro-choice stance in 2019 as a presidential candidate. 

Shortly afterward, Cardinal Timothy Dolan suggested Biden's stance was reason enough for him to be denied the Eucharist.

"You are publicly at odds with an issue of substance — critical substance," Dolan told Fox News. "We're talking about life and death in the Church. You personally, out of integrity should not approach Holy Communion — because that implies that you're in union with all the church beliefs."

Charles Chaput, the Archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, made the case for Biden being denied Communion as well with an essay in First Things.

The Catholic Church stipulates that "formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense," to the point that those who participate in abortion receive "the canonical penalty of excommunication" from the Church and should be denied reception of the Eucharist.

In January, Biden was not invited to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's funeral.

Just The News reached out to HHS and the White House for comment, but neither responded to the request. 

You can follow Nick on Twitter @NGivasDC

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