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 courtesy National Geographic Channels


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(RNS) An East Tennessee serpent-handling pastor’s legal woes are over for now.

After a hearing on Wednesday (Jan. 8), a grand jury decided not to indict the Rev. Andrew Hamblin on charges of violating a state ban on possessing venomous snakes.

In November, state officials seized 53 serpents — including rattlesnakes, copperheads and exotic breeds — from the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., where Hamblin is pastor.

Hamblin and his church say the Bible commands them to handle the snakes in worship. They’ve been featured in a National Geographic television series, “Snake Salvation.”

But state law bans the possession of venomous snakes.

Officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency cited Hamblin with 53 counts of violating the ban. Each count carried a maximum sentence of almost a year in jail.

Hamblin argued that the ban violates congregations’ religious liberty.

He was thrilled by the grand jury’s decision.

“I’m ecstatic,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “All the headlines should read ‘Snake handlers have religious rights in Tennessee.’”

Hambin said he was allowed to address the grand jury for half an hour at the hearing. His defense was simple. The snakes weren’t his, he said. They belonged to the church, and Hamblin said the wildlife officials had no business raiding a church.

In the weeks since the raid, Hamblin and his congregation have rallied local support for their cause. They collected signatures on petitions and made their case on Facebook and other social media outlets. Dozens of their supporters crowded in the Campbell County Courthouse for previous hearings.

Since 1947, Tennessee law has banned venomous snakes during church services or public settings. The state Supreme Court upheld that ban in the 1970s.

Matt Cameron, a spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said  its officers acted correctly in raiding Hamblin’s church.

Most of the snakes were in ill health when they were seized, said Cameron. More than half died since the raid, and the rest are being cared for at a Knoxville zoo.

That’s where they will remain, said Cameron.

“As far as returning the snakes — that is not an option,” he said.

State officials don’t plan to take any other action toward the church or Hamblin, said Cameron.

Hamblin has said repeatedly that he would go to jail rather than give up handing serpents in church.  His church has continued to hold services with snakes on Friday nights and Sundays since the raid. Despite the publicity, National Geographic did not renew the reality-TV show for a second season.

But Hamblin was grateful to the grand jury and credited prayer and community support for its decision.

“God came by,” he said. “It’s a huge relief off our shoulders. Now we can go back to normal and not worry about being shut down.”

YS/MG END SMIETANA

14 Comments

  1. Earold Gunter

    I say let them have the snakes, as long as they aren’t given to children. As far as stopping their involvement if helping to purify the collective gene pool, in the words of Pope Francis, “Who am I?” to say they shouldn’t

  2. This cultist got off lucky. The grand jury likely was dominated by right wing libertarian wackadoodles. State law on this matter is unambiguous; he should have been indicted. I smell something akin to “jury nullification.”

  3. A pox on National Geographic for its crass and shameless commercial huckstering in producing “Snake Salvation.” They have lowered themselves to the level of such inanities as professional rasslin’ and sasquatch huntin’.

  4. Christian privilege rears its ugly head yet again. If I had to speculate, if the snake handler were of any faith but Christianity, it would have gone the other way. They chose not to prosecute someone out of inconvenience and publicity. Please note, the pastor did not get his snakes back. The state just chose not to charge him for the multiple counts of animal cruelty.

    There is a clear secular and rational purpose behind the venomous snake ban which was being violated. The Pastor clearly was not caring for his snakes in a responsible manner considering most were ill. He is the religious equivalent of the “crazy cat lady”. If his practice was puppy juggling or his religion was Santeria, he would be locked up by now.

  5. Love to see the look on their faces when you try to explain to them that the original ending of Mark Chapter 16 only went to verse 8. verses 9-20 were added at a later date. Do they know what Eucharist, Advent, Lent, office of morning and evening prayer are? I could go and on. Sad.

  6. If the pentecostal freaks want to test their faith, I say jump off a cliff, lock yourself in your car with a hose running from the exhaust, drink some drano. See how that works out for you. OR: Get off welfare, get a job, volunteer at a homeless shelter, and join a Christian church that doesn’t put animals or children in danger. Oh, and while we’re on that subject, your children should be taken away and you should be sterilized so we can nip this in the bud right now. But who am I to judge?…..

  7. I have mixed feelings on the decision in some ways because I do believe in religious freedom. As long as the snakes are not handled near or given to children, I think I’m okay with the decision. Definitely those snakes should not come anywhere near children for several reasons including the risk of death from a bike is MUCH higher for children because of their small size and blood volume. It would be interesting to know how many people have been injured or killed in one of those services though … don’t know very much about this form of Christianity at all. I do remember the verse in the Bible about the snakes though, where God promises to protect the snake handlers. I am Christian but do not belong to a church like his. Quaker here.

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