Update (9:45 a.m. Friday): Saint Francis South has been granted a waiver to continue use of its eternal flame, according to Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation; an attorney with Becket Law confirmed the waiver Friday morning.
This story is developing. Check tulsaworld.com for more updates.
The story below published in Friday’s Tulsa World:
Saint Francis Hospital South, its accrediting agency and the federal government may be going to court over a candle.
The candle in question is a “living flame” that has burned for 15 years in the hospital chapel, according to attorneys with Becket Law, a religious liberty firm in Washington that is representing Saint Francis.
The issue arose after an accrediting organization, The Joint Commission, cited the flame as a fire hazard. Saint Francis appealed the decision to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services but was denied.
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The CMS response cites a 2006 memorandum to state nursing home inspectors. The memo says candles are “the number one cause of fires in dwellings” and cannot be allowed in resident’s rooms but may be used in other locations where they are placed in a substantial candle holder and supervised at all times while they are lighted.”
This last requirement is the sticking point.
“According to the information gathered by TJC and the survey finding, ‘there was a lit candle with open flame burning unattended 24/7,’” says the letter from a CMS official to Saint Francis.
The letter tells Saint Francis to work out something with The Joint Commission.
The situation is a potentially serious one, since without accreditation Saint Francis South will lose access to Medicaid, Medicare and Children’s Health Insurance Program funds at the end of May. In a May 2 letter to CMS, Becket Law warned of dire consequences if that happens.
“If you refuse to accredit Saint Francis Hospital South, it will result in such unreasonable financial losses to the Saint Francis Health System that it would abruptly and immediately jeopardize its services to the elderly, disabled, and low-income patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP),” the letter says.
Since nobody wants that to happen, it seems reasonable to think some sort of resolution is likely, but the hospital and its lawyers are not saving their ammunition.
Their letter says the flame is an essential element of Catholic ritual and forcing Saint Francis to extinguish it would violate the First Amendment’s religious freedom clause.
The letter says a similar flame has burned in Saint Francis’ main hospital since it opened in 1960.
“We are writing to ask you to cease and desist before we file an emergency lawsuit naming you as defendants and seeking emergency relief and substantial damages. If we go to court, you will lose,” says the 13-page letter signed by Becket Law Vice President Lori Windham.
News of the situation appeared on the web site of the National Review on Wednesday, one day after Becket Law’s letter to CMS.