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