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 here, here, and here); the practice, which involves handling venomous snakes (usually rattlesnakes) is based on two Biblical verses:
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 SunHerald.com, a paper serving the Mississipi coast, a pastor in Tennessee was acquited 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, 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.’ “
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 was clearly guilty and, in fact, admitted the transgressions.
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.