Lori Windham, vice resident and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated that the US Department of Health and Human Services' threat violates both federal law and the First Amendment.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has a history of suing government entities for violating citizens' religious freedoms and called this case "one of the most egregious violations we have ever seen."
Windham's letter to Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, explicitly warned that they would lose in court if they proceed.
The Saint Francis candle, which has been burning uninterrupted since the hospital's opening in 1960, was recently declared a fire hazard by a federal surveyor during an inspection, Windham said. The surveyor specifically asked to see the chapel to determine if there was a living flame, and ultimately issued a citation demanding that the candle be snuffed out, she added.
Windham noted that the candle is encased in two glass globes, with a bronze top that fits over the second globe and rests in a bronze holder affixed to the chapel's wall. Sprinkler heads also surround the candle, so the citation is inconsistent with the applicable fire safety rules, which Saint Francis complies with, according to Windham.
SB 404, recently signed into law by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, strengthens state law to protect religious entities from being targeted by state or local governments.
While this law will not affect federal entities, it restricts state and local governments in Oklahoma. The bill passed the Oklahoma Senate with a 38-7 vote and passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives with a 64-27 vote. Democratic lawmakers have criticized the bill's passage, claiming that it restricts the religious freedom of Oklahomans.
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