Biden Admin Backs Down in Standoff With Catholic Hospital Over Chapel Candle

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The Biden administration announced on May 5 that it is stepping back from a previous decision demanding that a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma remove a lit candle from its chapel—a practice and observance sacred to Catholics—or lose its ability to accept Medicare, Medicaid, or Children’s Health (CHIP) patients.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), had ruled in April that the candle, which has burned continuously for 15 years at Saint Francis Hospital South in Tulsa, was a safety hazard—even though a local fire marshal cleared the candle and CMS permitted other flames, including pilot lights, in the hospital.

CMS said its decision was based on the findings of an independent group, The Joint Commission, which reviews hospitals to determine if they meet the standards necessary to be accredited to receive Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP patients.

The 12th largest U.S. health care network, Saint Francis Health System is the Catholic owner and operator of Saint Francis Hospital South, eight other hospitals, and 110 clinics in Oklahoma. Saint Francis appealed the CMS decree and sought a reasonable accommodation.

CMS denied Saint Francis’ request in a letter dated April 20.

Yet, following widespread protest, media attention, and a pre-litigation letter a leading religious liberty legal group, Becket Law, along with Yetter Coleman LLP, sent to CMS on behalf of Saint Francis, alleging that prohibiting the candle was a violation of the First Amendment free exercise of religion clause, the agency said it is now open to working with Saint Francis to find an arrangement that permits the burning candle to stay.

Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel for Becket Law, said that CMS’ adjusting its position is a win for religious freedom.

“The decision of CMS shows that religious liberty protections extend to practicing your faith, and that includes providing health care and worship in a chapel,” Windham told The Epoch Times. “These protections apply to everyone. Today it’s a candle. Tomorrow it could be something else.

“And so, a good decision today for Saint Francis is a good decision for religious believers across the country.”

By Ross Muscato

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