(RNS) A Tennessee pastor’s dangerous spiritual practices made him a star of a reality TV series.

Andrew Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in La Follette, Tenn., holds up two rattlesnakes during church service. For more than a 100 years, small Pentecostal churches in East Tennessee and other parts of Appalachia have handled poisonous snakes and drunk strychnine during their services. The snake handlers say that the Bible tells them to do so, but it’s illegal and has mostly died out.

Andrew Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., holds up two rattlesnakes during a church service. For more than 100 years, small Pentecostal churches in East Tennessee and other parts of Appalachia have handled poisonous snakes and drunk strychnine during their services. The snake handlers say that the Bible tells them to do so, but it’s illegal and has mostly died out. Photo by Shelley Mays, courtesy USA Today


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Now they may make him a religious liberty crusader.

Officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollete on Thursday (Nov. 7) and seized 53 venomous snakes — including timber rattlesnakes, copperheads and several exotic breeds.

They cited the Rev. Andrew Hamblin, the church’s pastor and co-star of the National Geographic series “Snake Salvation,” and plan to charge him with 53 count of violating a state ban on possessing venomous snakes at a court hearing on Friday. Each count carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail.

Tennessee has banned serpent handling in churches since 1947; state wildlife regulations allow zoos and schools to own poisonous snakes, but not churches.

Hamblin says state law violates his congregation’s religious liberty. He and church members believe the Bible commands them to handle serpents in worship, based on a New Testament passage in the Gospel of Mark.

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover,” Mark 15:16-17.

He plans to plead not guilty.

“If I had the snakes in my home, around my children, that would have been my own stupidity and I would have pled guilty,” said Hamblin.  “But once they came into my church house — they crossed the line.”

The raid is not the first time that a serpent-handling congregation in Tennessee has run afoul of the law.

In 1947, state legislators made it illegal “for a person to display, exhibit, handle, or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such manner as to endanger the life or health of any person.”

That law was passed after a series of deaths at serpent-handling churches.

Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand, assistant professor of religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University, said state officials passed the law because they felt public safety outweighed religious liberty when it came to snake handling.

A legal challenge to the serpent handing law failed in the 1975, when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that serpent-handling religion was too dangerous to be legal.

“[W]e hold that those who publicly handle snakes in the presence of other persons and those who are present aiding and abetting are guilty of creating and maintaining a public nuisance,” the court ruled in Swann v. Pack.

Matt Cameron, a spokesman for the state wildlife agency, said he couldn’t recall another time when state officials seized snakes from a church. He said state officials became aware that there were snakes at the church because of the “Snake Salvation” television show.

Cameron said the law doesn’t allow Hamblin to possess venomous snakes.

“He is not eligible for a permit the way the law is written,” he said.

But several legal experts believe Hamblin might be able to challenge the state laws on First Amendment grounds.

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said Hamblin could claim that state officials are treating serpent handlers unfairly, since they allow zoos to have snakes but not churches.

He pointed to a 2003 U.S. court ruling, Blackhawk v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where judges — including now Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito — ruled in favor of a Native American man who wanted own a black bear for religious purposes.  The court ruled that the man qualified for a religious exemption for a permit to own the bear.

And Hamblin may have a legal advantage that earlier snake handers in Tennessee did not have, said J. Brent Walker of the Washington, D.C.-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

In 2009, the state legislature passed the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which limits the state’s ability to restrict religious liberty.

Under that law, said Walker, the state can only restrict religious practice if it has a compelling interest and it uses the least restrictive means necessary.

“I think an argument can be made that the state has no legitimate interest in preventing adults from practicing their faith,” he said.

Walker said the state could put some restrictions on snake handlers — for example, to protect children — but he thinks an outright ban may be struck down.

Hamblin said he has no plans to give up serpent handing.  His church held its normal services on the weekend after the raid and worshippers brought snakes to church.

He and church members are collecting signatures on a petition and rallying supporters to show up for Hamblin’s court hearing on Friday.

All he wants, said Hamblin, is for his church to be able to practice its faith in peace.

YS/MG END SMIETANA

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 Comments

  1. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic I find snake handling normally foolish and a misunderstanding of the Bible–although there have been Catholic saints who have lived out the passages in question -some monks tried to poison Saint Benedict, but the poison had no affect on this holy man. Thus one can say these passages in the Bible point to a community presence activated and lived out by a few individuals on behalf of the community.
    The real danger in America today is NOT from snake-handlers, but from Leviathan government power. Whether it is gay “marriage” or use of health laws, or animal protection agencies–the First Amendment is under concerted assault–even though Freedom of Religion was just about the main concern of our Founding Fathers and the backbone of the First Amendment.
    The idea was that people are responsible for their own lives–and that means the government should stand back. For the distance between government as nanny and government as tyrannical is miniscule.

    • The Free Exercise Clause has never been an excuse to act in a way which is harmful to others or break laws which are rational and religiously neutral just because you claim God commands you to do it.

      Your right to free exercise ends where it harms others or the actions would be considered illegal as a general matter of law.

      The Supreme Court considered your argument a load of crap more than a century ago

      “This would be introducing a new element into criminal law. Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband, would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice?”
      -Reynolds v. US (1878)

  2. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As far as I can tell no one in these churches is forced to handle snakes. If someone wants to be a fool and fondle snakes, that is his business not the government’s. The question is–which is more ultimately and immediately dangerous to all of us–a bunch of snake-handlers up in the mountains –or a government that coerces millions of people people to act against their consciences–like being forced to pay for killing children through government mandated insurance policies– and later to be accomplices in euthanasia.

  3. As long as people like Andrew Hamblin are out there, Christianity will just be more and more embarrassed, and naturally, the media loves this. So many people are saying this is a religious rights issue. It isn’t. It’s an issue with the law. It’s been illegal since 1947 and these snakes are class I creatures that require special care and licensing to live.

    I wrote about this whole situation on my own blog. http://deeperwaters.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/when-god-does-not-justify-someone/

    If only Christians would start fighting battles worth fighting instead of letting those who are hindering the gospel before the world be their champions.

  4. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I think Christianity in its proper forms can withstand media scrutiny. Most people realize the media loves the bizarre.
    But 20th Century history proves that government power can be far more dangerous than any poisonous snake. And it is the cases like this that can grease the skids for the ceding of ever more coercive powers to the state in our culture and American society. People risk their lives in all sorts of pursuits other people think are frequently as dangerous as snake handling—like high tightrope walking on live TV, car racing, boxing, or even football with the damage concussions cause (probably more often than snake handlers get bit.)

  5. Martin Luther King Jr. believed he was doing God’s work and was willing to disobey laws and go to jail in order to fulfill God’s plan. The Tennessee pastor who handles snakes is also willing to disobey laws and go to jail in order to fulfill God’s plan. The pastor’s actions are directly supported by Mark chapter 16, verse 18. I am an atheist but I admire this pastor for his courage. Not many people are willing to go to jail because of their sincere religious beliefs and actions.

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