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Can the Biden Administration Force a Catholic Hospital Extinguish a Sacred Flame?

The latest move by the Biden administration against the Catholic Church comes in the form of a threat to revoke government funding from St. Francis Health System in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claims that an eternal gas-powered flame, which St. Francis keeps lit within its hospital chapels, poses a safety hazard and must be extinguished. However, St. Francis argues that this is a violation of their First Amendment rights and could jeopardize healthcare services for the elderly, disabled, and low-income patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The Joint Commission, a nonprofit group that accredits thousands of hospitals across the country, claimed in February that the flame was dangerous and instructed St. Francis to extinguish it or face the loss of federal funding. St. Francis appealed the decision to the HHS, but the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) responded on April 20 with a letter affirming the Joint Commission’s initial decision.

The Becket Law firm, specializing in religious liberty, is representing St. Francis in the case. Lori Windham, Vice President, and Senior Counsel at the firm, wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, others at the department, CMS, and TJC on May 2. Windham emphasized that revoking accreditation could result in unreasonable financial losses to the St. Francis Health System, which would immediately jeopardize healthcare services for vulnerable populations in Oklahoma.

St. Francis argues that the eternal flame has been burning without problem or concern for 15 years at St. Francis Hospital South in Tulsa and for 63 years at St. Francis Hospital Yale Campus, the largest hospital in the state. St. Francis maintains that this move by HHS is a violation of their First Amendment rights and a threat to religious liberty. The Becket Law firm has warned HHS that they will lose the case if it goes to court, and that maintaining its position could lead to a legal firestorm.

The Fight for Religious Liberty and Healthcare

This case represents more than just a battle over a flame; it is a fight for religious liberty and healthcare services for vulnerable populations. St. Francis has been providing healthcare services to Oklahoma communities since 1960, and their commitment to its mission is guided by its Catholic faith. The eternal flame symbolizes their faith and their dedication to serving those in need. Removing it could be seen as an attack on their religious beliefs and could set a dangerous precedent for religious institutions across the country.

Furthermore, revoking accreditation could have dire consequences for healthcare services in Oklahoma. St. Francis is a premier hospital system in the state and provides vital services to vulnerable populations. If the hospital loses funding, it could lead to staff cuts, reduced services, and ultimately, a decline in the quality of care provided to patients.

The Takeaway

This case represents a clash between the government’s regulatory and criminal enforcement actions and religious institutions’ First Amendment rights. St. Francis is fighting to maintain its commitment to its mission and provide vital healthcare services to the communities it serves. The Becket Law firm is standing with St. Francis, and a legal battle could ensue if HHS maintains its position. The outcome of this case could have far-reaching implications for religious liberty and healthcare services across the country.

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