Press Release

BREAKING: Feds see the light, give up attack on Catholic hospital's sanctuary candle Saint Francis Health System in Oklahoma can keep the faith and continue serving those in need

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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WASHINGTON – The federal government has hastily abandoned its attempt to force a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma to either blow out a small candle or stop serving elderly, disabled, and low-income patients. Saint Francis Health System, which includes the largest hospital in Oklahoma and twelfth largest in the nation, keeps, with many prudent safeguards, a sacred candle always lit inside its hospital chapels in accordance with its Catholic faith. After a hospital inspection earlier this year, the government said a single candle in the chapel was too dangerous and threatened to strip the hospital of the ability to care for patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP—unless it snuffed out the eternal flame. Becket sent a letter to the Biden administration reminding it that the law protects Saint Francis’ religious freedom and telling the feds to expect legal action. Today, the government surrendered the fight, allowing Saint Francis to keep its living flame.

Saint Francis Health System is a premier health system with five hospitals in Eastern Oklahoma. The health system cares for nearly 400,000 patients each year, has given away more than $650 million dollars in free medical care in the past five years, and employs more than 11,000 Oklahomans. Saint Francis’ mission is to extend the presence and healing ministry of Christ. In addition to providing compassionate and excellent care to its patients, Saint Francis lives out its religious mission by maintaining multiple chapels throughout its hospitals, all blessed by the local Bishop.  

For over 60 years, the health system has had a sanctuary candle with a living flame as an act of worship. The flame is far from medical equipment and patients, 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. For Catholics, the living flame is a sign of the living presence of Jesus. The federal government tried to intimidate Saint Francis into extinguishing the candle by threatening to revoke its ability to care for patients who depend on Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP. 

“At the heart of Saint Francis’ mission is love for God and man. The living flame of our chapel candle indicates to all who enter our hospitals that we will serve them with religious devotion as Christ commands us,” said Dr. Cliff Robertson, chief executive officer of Saint Francis. “We are grateful for the support of Becket and Yetter Coleman, of the Oklahoma Delegation, and of countless persons all throughout the nation, and we are grateful for The Joint Commission and HHS’s recognition of our Religious Liberties.”

In February, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said one candle posed a threat to hospital safety. Even though the candle has been approved repeatedly by the government and the local fire marshal, Saint Francis was told to extinguish it. If it refused, the government vowed to revoke one of its hospital’s abilities to care for Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP patients, cutting off critical healthcare access for thousands of people in Oklahoma. 

With the help of Becket and the law firm Yetter Coleman LLP, Saint Francis sent a letter to HHS explaining how its actions violated federal law. It told the government that it was trampling on the hospital’s religious duty to maintain a flame and was trying to separate Saint Francis’ religious activities from its health care. The letter gently warned that, “if we go to court, you will lose.” Today, the government was able to see the light, allowing Saint Francis’ flame to continue to live on as it has for years without issue. 

“The game was simply not worth the candle for HHS,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It realized that it would be playing with fire in court if it stood by its absurd demand, so it chose wisely. We are glad Saint Francis can continue to serve those most in need while keeping the faith.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.