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Tennessee: Where 'Religious Freedom' Frees Snake Handlers to Abuse Animals

National Geographic/Snake Salvation

One of the peculiarities of American evangelical Christianity is the bizarre practice of "snake handling" by some Southern sects. I've posted about this several times (see herehere, and here). The practice, which involves playing with venomous snakes—usually rattlesnakes—is based on two Biblical verses that seem to assure believers of immunity:

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 16:17-18)

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19). 

So much for those who take the Bible metaphorically. Do these people have a "wrong" understanding of Scripture?

At any rate, according to the, a paper serving the Mississippi coast, a pastor in Tennessee was acquitted of handling snakes—a violation of state law—on grounds of religious freedom.

After a hearing on Wednesday, 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, Tennessee, 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.'" 

What the grand jury did here was, in effect, a form of "jury nullification," in which someone believed to be guilty is acquitted (or, in this case, not indicted) because the jury doesn't accept or like the law. Hamblin clearly did violate the Tennessee statute and, in fact, admitted his transgressions.

But insofar as that law abrogates the free exercise of religion, I agree that the pastor should not be indicted. If he and his fanatical brethren want to kill themselves (and several famous snake-handlers have indeed met that fate), well, that’s their prerogative, though there’s the issue of indoctrinating children with the practice. Some cynics might also oppose the law since it prevents natural selection against stupidity, but I won’t go that far. 

No, why I think Hamblin deserves to be tried and found guilty is to protect the snakes: hapless reptiles who are not only captured, but often kept in terrible conditions (see below), and—the ultimate indignity—forced to bite the Christians who tease them.

Hamblin’s case clearly involved the abuse of animals:

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. 

The Christians have a choice here: lay off the reptiles or take your chances. The snakes have no such choice, and, as a biologist, I can’t condone their poor treatment, even in the name of faith. 

Finally, one wonders about whether Scripture is wrong about the safety of taking up serpents, given the deaths of prominent snake-wranglers like Mack Wolford of West Virginia, done in by a timber rattler in 2012. Or perhaps those hapless victims simply didn’t have the “proper belief.” Once again, every possible outcome can be made consistent with Christianity. 

Christopher Hitchens was criticized for giving his bestseller God is Not Great the subtitle How Religion Poisons Everything, but in this case he was right on the money. 

Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous websiteversion of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.