Catholic hospital could lose federal funding for burning sacred candle

Saint Francis Health System could lose federal funding if it doesn't snuff out a sacred candle burning in its hospital. The Tulsa, Okla.-based system is fighting to keep the flame alight. 

Saint Francis, a Catholic health system, always keeps a sacred candle lit within its hospital chapels. The Joint Commission found one such flame dangerous in February and told the health system to extinguish it or risk losing Medicare, Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program funding. 

The health system disagrees with TJC's decision and has asked for a waiver four times. The candle is encased in glass and covered on top, and has been approved by the government and local fire marshal in the past, according to a May 3 news release from Becket Law, a nonprofit public interest law firm for religious liberty. 

"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 news release says. 

On April 20, CMS responded to the health system's letter of appeal, affirming TJC's decision. The open flame burns unsupervised 24/7, according to CMS, which violates its policy for patient safety. The agency recommended the hospital engage with TJC on a correction plan. 

"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. "CMS is working with the hospital’s accrediting organization to develop options to mitigate the potential fire risk and remove the safety finding."

However, on May 2, Becket penned a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, alleging the citation violates the hospital's First Amendment rights. The law firm asks CMS to grant a waiver "now (voluntarily), or after a court order (expensively)." 

"We're being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshipping 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 Becket's news release. "Our work depends upon our faith in the living God, and the sanctuary candle represents this to us.”  


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