Snakes in a Church: Should the Law Protect the Religious Liberty of Serpent-Handlers?

Tennessee law enforcement authorities recently seized approximately 53 snakes, most of them poisonous, from the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee. The young pastor of the church, Andrew Hamblin, was arrested for violations of Tennessee Code § 39-17-101, which makes it an offense “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.” The offense is a Class C misdemeanor.

The Pentecostal pastor and his flock believe that an oft-neglected passage of Scripture, Mark 16:15 – 18, instructs followers of Christ to handle poisonous “serpents” as a part of their worship, as a confirmation of their faith. Specifically, the verses read, “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

Hamblin, who resembles a character from a Flannery O’Connor story with a Facebook page and a D-list reality TV show, told local reporters:

“I believe in the power of God and that it’ll let you heal [the sick] and it’ll move and it’ll cast out devils. It’ll move in tongues, it’ll move and take up serpents,” said Hamblin. “Here I am I’m getting snakes took, I’m facing jail time, I’m facing being taken away from my wife, my children, I’m facing being pulled out of my church just simply because I went out in the woods and caught a rattlesnake and I brought it to a service because I believe the Bible said they shall take up serpents.”

Hamblin is scheduled to appear in court on November 15. The charges carry with them fines of up to $2,500 per count and 11 months and 25 days of jail time for each of the 53 counts. He vows to fight the charges in court, arguing that his religious liberty has been violated. Does he have chance in Hell of prevailing?

The Tennessee law of which Hamblin ran afoul was passed in 1947. It reacted to a series of five deaths in a two-year period in which serpent-handling Christians died. Permits are available to zoos and other secular institutions, but no such exceptions are available to individuals or churches.

Hamblin is not the first person to question whether Tennessee’s snake-handling statute violates First-Amendment protections of religious liberty. In 1975, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the state’s ban on serpent-handling in Swann v. Pack. The court found that public safety trumped the snake-handlers’ freedom to practice their religion. Since the law is one of general applicability, not singling out religious believers, it likely does not violate the First Amendment, at least under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Employment Division v. Smith.

However, the state passed the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Amendment (T. C. A. § 4-21-1101) to protect the religious liberties of its residents. The TRFRA provides greater free-exercise protections than the First Amendment alone. Tennessee passed the legislation in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in City of Boerne v. Flores, which found Congress’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 unconstitutional as applied to state and local laws. Under the TRFRA, the states must exempt persons from laws that burden their religious beliefs unless the law promotes a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of doing so.

Certainly, the state has a compelling interest in protecting public safety. Venomous snakes, especially held in large numbers by people unfamiliar with best practices for keeping dangerous animals, are a threat not only to the snake-handlers themselves, but also the surrounding community. How safe would you feel living in an apartment next to a guy who had fifty-odd copperheads in flimsy Rubbermaid boxes? Furthermore, the animals themselves might well be mistreated by uneducated handlers. Matt Cameron of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency told the press that the reptiles seized from Hamblin were in bad shape and many were unlikely to survive. (The snakes are now resting comfortably at the Knoxville Zoo.)

Is Tennessee’s current law the least restrictive means of furthering this interest, though? Probably not. The state could issue permits for churches whose members want to keep venomous snakes, just as it does with other institutions such as zoos and circuses. Those permits could mandate a host of safety measures to ensure that the reptiles are properly cared for and securely housed. The law could further provide that, for example, minor children must be kept out of harm’s way. As for the immediate safety of the serpent-handlers themselves, independent of endangering others . . . well, faithful is as faithful does.

Should the law allow Andrew Hamblin and his Pentecostal brethren to handle poisonous snakes as a free exercise of their religious faith? To swallow strychnine as a part of Sunday morning worship? Personally, I prefer celebrating the Sabbath by drinking extra-dry martinis on a patio with an old philosophy professor pal of mine. Liberty, however, allows for differing preferences. However batty I think Hamblin’s Sunday practice may be, I’ll lift my glass to his right to do it. With a permit, that is.

(hidden for your protection)

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