From OSV News: 

A Catholic hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said the federal government has presented it with a choice to either extinguish a candle in its chapel’s sanctuary or risk its ability to treat patients covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, jeopardizing its ability to operate at all.

The hospital is being represented by a religious liberty law firm that says the government is violating the First Amendment.

St. Francis Hospital South, which is part of St. Francis Health System, the 12th largest hospital system in the nation, has a sacred candle lit inside its hospital chapel at all times, in accordance with Catholic teaching that a lit candle is a symbol that Christ is present. The hospital said it follows every pertinent fire regulation, and the sanctuary flame is enclosed, away from any medical equipment, and regularly passes annual reviews by the local fire marshal.

But the hospital said that following a February inspection on behalf of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services, said the flame was not in compliance with its regulations.

A letter from Becket, a Washington-based religious liberty law firm, to HHS officials said that despite “many sprinkler heads surrounding the candle, good exhaust, the flame’s double glass encasing, the bronze top enclosing the flame, despite its mounting to a wall over six feet high, and despite the surveyor’s knowledge of the fire marshal’s long-standing approval of the eternal flame, the sanctuary lamp did not meet with the surveyor’s favor.”

Failure to extinguish the flame could jeopardize the hospital’s accreditation, and thus its ability to serve elderly, disabled and low-income patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP, the letter said.

“You have threatened to deny accreditation because Saint Francis keeps a candle — an eternal flame — in its hospital sanctuary,” the letter said, adding, “If we go to court, you will lose.”

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With a potential lawsuit looming, the federal government has issued a waiver to allow a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma to keep the flame of its long-lit sanctuary candle burning, which, in Catholic tradition, symbolizes the presence of Christ.

The Department of Health and Human Services “realized it would be playing with fire in court if it stood by its absurd demand, so it chose wisely,” Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said in a statement.

“We are glad Saint Francis can continue to serve those most in need while keeping the faith,” she said.

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