Blow Out the Candle, Bigot - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Blow Out the Candle, Bigot
Candle by Bible (Doidam10/Shutterstock)

What’s the good of having a Catholic president if all he does is persecute Catholics? In recent months, the government has come under fire for assorted incursions against President Joe Biden’s fellow congregants. 

In February, a leaked document revealed that the FBI has been surveilling traditional Catholics. More recently, the military told a Holy Name College — the community of Franciscan priests who have served at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for decades — to cease and desist. The military replaced the Franciscans with a secular consulting firm, leaving Catholic servicemen without access to the sacraments. 

And in just the past week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) set out to revoke the accreditation of Saint Francis Health System — a Catholic, not-for-profit health system in Oklahoma — unless the hospitals extinguish the sanctuary flames in their chapels. 

On behalf of Saint Francis Health System, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a pre-litigation letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and other Biden personnel on May 2. The letter, written by Becket’s vice president and senior counsel Lori Windham, explains that the government’s demands violate both the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment. Three days later, it was announced that the government had abandoned its complaint against Saint Francis Health System. 

This is a victory, to be sure, but there shouldn’t have been a battle in the first place. This latest episode of the government’s hostility to religion will be swept under the rug and forgotten, likely to be replaced in the coming weeks with another violation of First Amendment rights. But even though the government has backed off of Saint Francis Health System, it’s worth remembering the ends to which the government is willing to go to snuff out the light of Christ — literally. (RELATED: Biden Administration Goes After Campus Religious Groups)

Saint Francis Health System doesn’t light candles for ambience; the sanctuary flame is a single, perpetually lit candle placed by the tabernacle in all Catholic chapels and churches. The flame denotes the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and the Catholic Code of Canon Law requires that a “special lamp which indicates and honors the presence of Christ is to shine continuously before a tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved.” 

As a Catholic health system with chapels in its hospitals, Saint Francis has a religious obligation to keep a candle lit in the space at all times. For more than 60 years, this hadn’t been a problem. But two months ago, a surveyor from one of the government’s official hospital accreditors demanded that the candle be extinguished, citing a fire-safety concern. 

Curiously, the surveyor specifically asked to visit the chapel to see if there was a living flame. When he saw the flame, he cited it as a violation of CMS requirements. The Becket Fund explains:

On a likelihood-of-harm scale ranging from “low,” to “moderate,” to “high,” to “immediate threat to health and safety,” the surveyor ranked the chapel’s enclosed flame as a “moderate threat. (What, one wonders, is the “low” risk category reserved for?)

Never mind that the flame in question is “fueled by a candle that is encased in a thick glass globe, which is itself encased in a second glass globe, covered by a bronze top that fits over the second globe.” 

Never mind that the candle is surrounded by sprinkler heads, doubly encased in glass, shielded by a bronze top, and mounted six feet high on the wall. 

Never mind that the National Fire Protection Association Codes and Standards used by CMS expressly permit sanctuary candles, or that Saint Francis’s chapel “regularly passes annual reviews by the local fire marshal.” As Windham quipped in her letter, “This is not Mrs. O’Leary’s barn.”

CMS had nothing to say about multiple other “prudently managed” flames present in the hospital, including pilot lights for stoves and ovens, gas dryers in laundry rooms, flames in gas water heaters, and welding tools.

This one sanctuary flame, which had never been cited as a problem during the hospital’s decades of accreditation, was the only reason that CMS decided to revoke the hospital’s accreditation. CMS proposed the corrective action of extinguishing the flame. Citing religious obligations, Saint Francis requested a reasonable accommodation from CMS. The agency dug in its heels and rejected four separate requests by Saint Francis for a waiver.

The surveyor had reported that the chapel contained a “lit candle with an open flame burning unattended 24/7.” In the course of requesting a waiver, Saint Francis corrected the surveyor’s statement and explained that the sanctuary candle is an enclosed flame. The government pivoted. Actually, they argued, the open flame of the lighter used to light the sanctuary candle — which, by definition, remains perpetually lit — was the problem. It was never really about the candle. 

So the government gave Saint Francis a choice: blow out the candle and violate Catholic teaching or lose Medicare and Medicaid eligibility.

“This year for the first time HHS has decided that Saint Francis should choose between keeping a living flame in its hospital chapel and its ability to serve the elderly, poor, and disabled who receive Medicaid, Medicare and CHIP through HHS,” Windham told National Review. It seems that the real threat to the health and safety of patients wasn’t a candle — it was a hostile bureaucracy.

Once faced with the Becket Fund’s letter, however, the government hastily backtracked. CMS granted a waiver to Saint Francis, allowing them to keep the sanctuary candle aflame. And so, the flame will remain lit, contingent upon the hospital’s adherence to the agency’s plan of correction: mitigate fire risks by posting signs warning people to keep oxygen equipment far away from the flame, and rope off the area around the candle, just in case. 

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece about the Biden administration’s hostility to religious liberty, Notre Dame Law School Professor Nicole Stelle Garnett and attorney Meredith Holland Kessler remarked: “Religious believers shouldn’t have to turn to courts to remind the executive branch that it is bound by the Constitution.”

Now that CMS has changed its tune, no action will be taken in the courts. But that doesn’t really matter to the Biden administration. Legal action or not, the process is the punishment. It’s not about a candle or Constitution; it’s about snuffing out the light of faith. 

Mary Frances Myler is a postgraduate fellow with the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.

READ MORE by Mary Frances Myler:

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