Nasty Party Trick Fails in Oklahoma: Candle in Catholic Hospital Chapel Still Burns

COMMENTARY: With the facts laid out against them, the Biden administration had no choice but to retreat.

In the chapel of St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a single candle remains burning day and night.
In the chapel of St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a single candle remains burning day and night. (photo: Courtesy of Becket)

Federal bureaucrats were forced to admit their folly last week with the sneaky trick they attempted in their war against health-care providers who are motivated by their Catholic faith. In fact, it was so sneaky that they may find that it outrages even nonreligious members of the American public. 

In the chapel of St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a single candle is left burning day and night. It’s a Catholic chapel, and this is a sanctuary lamp. The candle is encased in a thick glass globe, encased in a second glass globe, covered by a bronze top that fits over the second globe, and rests in a bronze holder, which is affixed to the wall of hospital chapels. 

No one in their right mind can believe that this is a fire risk. On the other hand, if you are really determined to harass this not-for-profit Catholic facility, which is part of a network of wonderful St. Francis hospitals in the state, then you would see this heavily encased flame signifying the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as an excuse to deprive it of its Medicaid and Medicare eligibility and its ability to serve elderly, disabled and low-income patients in Tulsa. 

And that’s precisely what the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) attempted. 

In February, a surveyor working for the CMS asked to see the chapel. He saw the candle, which is encased in not one but two glass globes and — get this — surrounded by sprinkler heads. And instead of saying, “Well done; you’ve really gone the extra mile to meet health and safety requirements,” and noting that the local fire chief is happy, he reported to CMS that “there was a lit candle with open flame burning unattended 24/7.” He could say something similar, of course, about pilot lights that burn “unattended” in heating systems — but this is a Catholic chapel and different standards apply. That is, grossly unfair ones that enable public officials to play what amounts to an ingeniously nasty secularist party trick. 

The St. Francis Health System accounts for about 11,000 jobs and cares for more than 400,000 patients in its five eastern Oklahoma hospitals. It could have bent the knee to the Department of Health and Human Services by agreeing to replace the candle with a fake electric version, which some Catholic hospitals do. But it prefers to abide by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which mandates that “a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should shine prominently to indicate the presence of Christ and honor it.” This might have been controversial if there were a genuine safety issue involved — but there isn’t. 

The government’s demand that the chapel extinguish its lamp was so preposterous that Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket law group, wrote a 13-page letter to CMS pointing out that it had “flagrantly violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by punishing St. Francis’ long-standing, uninterrupted free exercise of its religion by maintaining an enclosed candle in its chapels.” 

Windham is one of the most experienced religious-freedom advocates in the United States, with multiple successes before the Supreme Court. She added: “If we go to court, you will lose. I write in the hope that you will see reason (or at least the law) and we can skip to the easy part.” 

With the facts laid out against them, the government had no choice but to recognize that they were caught playing a stupid and obnoxious ideological game. It’s just the latest example of the Biden administration’s pursuit of every opportunity to genuflect to extreme progressives — one of whom, the president’s head of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, was baptized a Catholic but has morphed into an intensely devout and dogmatic follower of the secularist religion. 

As Windham noted, he lost this one. But they will no doubt continue to look for every opportunity, however slight, to extinguish other flames of authentic Catholicism.