The Attempt to Snuff Out a Devotional Candle Reveals Official Callousness to the Free Exercise of Religion
The St. Francis Health System in Oklahoma is the twelfth largest hospital system in the nation. It cares for more than 400,000 patients each year and has given away more than $650 million in free medical care in the past five years. St. Francis also employs more than 11,000 Oklahomans.
And it was almost shut down by the federal government over a candle.
For 62 years, St. Francis has maintained a continuously burning flame on a sanctuary candle in its chapel. It is not decorative. Like a Sikh’s kirpan or a Jew’s kippah, it is a devotional object central to worship. The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law requires that wherever the Blessed Sacrament is kept, a special lamp – a “living flame” – must be kept burning.
The St. Francis flame – in a chapel, apart from the hospital – is fueled by a candle inside a thick, glass globe, which is encased in a second glass globe, resting in a bronze holder with a bronze top. It is affixed six feet above the floor and surrounded by sprinkler heads. For all these good reasons, it has met the approval of the local fire marshal during annual inspections.
But the candle did not meet the approval of a surveyor sent by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel of the Becket Law firm, wrote the government: “Curiously, during the inspection, the surveyor expressly asked to go to the chapel to see if there was a living flame.”
After seeing it, the surveyor deemed this enclosed candle flame, six feet above the ground, as a safety hazard that could, somehow, ignite the oxygen in a visitor’s breathing tube. He made this declaration despite the fact that the National Fire Protection Association deems that such a threat exists only within one foot of a flame.
“This is not Mrs. O’Leary’s barn,” Windham wrote.
The government’s inspector did not find such a problem with other open flames at St. Francis, from a pilot light in a stove and ovens, to water heaters and gas dryers in a laundry.
CMS nevertheless told St. Francis to either extinguish the candle or lose access to federal funding, essentially shutting down the hospital and leaving thousands of patients without treatment. Becket’s Windham explained why this living flame, believed by the Catholic Church to be a sign of the presence of the living Jesus, could not be extinguished.
In a tartly written letter to the government, under the heading “Why the Government Will Lose,” Windham noted the three ways the government’s action violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act: it imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise by making the institution extinguish its candle, it has no compelling interest (the case for public safety is risible), and the government did not seek out the least restrictive means.
The government withdrew its demand last week, though it required St. Francis to post a warning sign nearby – a good example, perhaps, of a less restrictive means.
What can we learn from this monumental waste of government resources? Becket’s quick and thorough letter demonstrates the important role played by civil liberties organizations in the defense of religious liberty. This case also demonstrates what seems at times a willful obtuseness on the part of government when it comes to respecting religious norms.
While St. Francis won the day, it is clear that defenders of religious liberty will continue to get static from the attitudes of some government officials. In such cases, it is the job of civil libertarians to demonstrate to the government that the fight isn’t worth the candle.