Should public safety trump snake salvation?



Reality show star Jamie Coots is not the first snake-handling pastor to die practicing his faith, and presumably he won't be the last.

Last month Tennessee district attorney general Lori Phillips tried to prosecute Coots' "Snake Salvation" co-star Andrew Hamblin for violating that state's law against owning venomous wildlife. But the grand jury refused to return an indictment. “We never saw this as a religious freedom case, but as a public safety issue." Phillips said. "We respect the decision of the grand jury.”

In the snake handlers' view, the prosecutor acted unconstitutionally. "To me it's just...it violated my right as an American to have my freedom of religion," one parishioner told WBIR-Knoxville last month. "It shouldn't matter to people if I know the word of the Lord moves on me and I feel that I need to take up a six-foot rattlesnake. I feel I should have that God-given right."

Tennessee's longstanding anti-snake-handling law, upheld by a 1975 decision of the state supreme court, was passed to protect citizens from just what happened to Coots. And the protection of life and limb would seem to be just the kind of compelling state interest that, under the strictest legal standard, allows the government to place limits on constitutional rights.

Why the grand jury didn't see it that way is worth pondering. Maybe the jurors thought that TV celebrity has its privileges, but I'd say that we're living at a moment when religious liberty claims enjoy special support, at least among some Americans. That's thanks to the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, which opponents have sold as part of a wide-ranging governmental assault on religious liberty.

Coots died of his rattlesnake bite after declining medical care from the emergency personnel who showed up at his home. It would be up to God to heal him or not, he said. In recent years, legislatures and juries have become increasingly intolerant of faith-based refusal of medical care -- especially when invoked by parents with respect to their children. It will be interesting to see if, in the current religious environment, that intolerance lessens.


  1. “Salvation on Sand Mountain”is a 1995 non-fiction book by Dennis Covington, which details this cultural practice. I know these people pretty well, my wife being from this area. My father described these folk as “ignorant and proud of it”. I can only add that while most have adapted to mainstream culture and goals, a sizable minority “clings to it’s guns and religion”, as the notorious line goes. It only takes one to hang a jury, and I doubt one could get a jury of twelve citizens that area that did not include one or more primitivist sympathizer.

  2. I understand Coots’ desire to decline emergency medical treatment for himself, but he handled deadly snakes every day for years. This was his profession. Now his family is begging for financial assistance on Facebook because he didn’t have the foresight to purchase life insurance despite his dangerous career choice. They can’t afford his burial and they can afford to care for themselves now that he’s dead.

    I guess I don’t mind if he wants to drink venom and cuddle with snakes. But it kind of rubs me wrong that his family wants the rest of us to do what Coots couldn’t be bothered to take care of.

  3. The only person this snake handler genuinely endangered was himself. The problem is that many freedoms have corollary risks.
    The Wallendas believe they can safely walk a tightrope across anywhere–and they get big bucks to endanger their lives on national TV doing so. Has anyone dragged them into court??? Or started a crusade against them???
    Every year a few race car drivers get maimed or killed. Where is the outcry to outlaw high speed car races??? There seems to be selective outrage over this particular religious kind of self- endangerment. Some experts on the Constitution I have read over the years fear that someday all our rights and freedoms could be put under government control through appeal to public health and safety–for who can be against such???

  4. Author

    Out of curiosity, Deacon, what do you think of the theology of snake-handling, in relation to the injunction not to tempt God (Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7)?

  5. What you or I think of a particular Bible passage or its interpretation should be is irrelevant. What is relevant is the constant expansion of government power in our day and age–including the president of the U.S.’s doing anything he darn well pleases with regard to specific parts of various laws he doesn’t like or doesn’t like how laws he pushed through Congress with little debate are now working out.

  6. In all fairness, I doubt any life insurance carrier would cover him with such a dangerous calling. He was not a professional snake handler in the sense of someone working at a zoo, biology lab or in the entertainment industry. He essentially has a dangerous (and illegal) hobby.

    I am equally annoyed that given the danger of what he was doing, there was nothing done to care for his family in the eventuality of being envenomed.

  7. The Wallendas were actual professional acrobats. People with years of EXPERT TRAINING in what they did. They did not walk tightropes out of some kind of zealous notions which compelled them to forgo safety measures. Far from it. They were probably more self-conscious and careful about such things than you can possibly imagine.

    Coots was an amateur. Someone who deliberately avoided handling poisonous snakes with the care and caution. This is not behavior one would expect from a zoo keeper or Hollywood :”snake wrangler”. Keeping the snakes in the way he did constituted animal cruelty. As for constitutional issues, there are none here. Religious expression has never been a license to ignore laws of general application.

    Since the snakes are not kept in safe enclosures when they are being used in religious rites, Coots endangered pretty much everyone in the room, if he got careless and a snake got away from him.

  8. The Honorable Deacon’s attitude is commonplace here. Basically, these folks resent outside interference and outsiders in general. The Civil War mythology,
    (few actually had ancestors who fought), the Federal prosecutions of bootleggers, racism, and jealously of the educated and professional classes, fuel their resentment. They are attracted to the Gods of Armageddon and retribution, and try to present themselves as the heirs of Biblical Revelation and the enemies of decadence and sin. In short – they are mean, dangerous, and dishonest.


    I agree with you. Freedom comes with risks.
    The answer is more education, not laws against snake handling.
    A class in Comparative Religions should be taught in all schools.

    Teaching children about superstition of snake handling – along with similar practices of other religions would go a long way to dispel these dangerous practices altogether.

  10. Clearly the 1975 decision focused on how this risky behavior put others at risk, and was not an attempt to undermine anyone’s religious beliefs, or practices, no matter how void of reality they may be.

    I have spent many years in the pentecostal church and can tell you from personal experience that their is much social pressure applied in the sermons given to be “right with god”. They believe if you are, there are outward signs, like speaking in tongues, and being healed when elders lay their hands on you and pray. If you are not showing these signs, the pastor and other elders will seek you out and counsel you, thus applying the pressure which caused me, and many others to fake speaking in tongues and being healed just to be thought of as “right with god”.

    This ironically was the initial crack, that later became the chasm in the abyss of religious belief, that I eventually crawled out of. It led to me actually reading the bible, for the first time, which is all it takes to wake up from the fantasy, for anyone who is moral.

    I was never exposed to snake handling, or poison drinking, but it was actually looked at by some in the church, and spoken about with envy as those that did were considered so right with god they were unafraid of the consequences, as god had promised it would not harm them.

    Religion is a poison to the mind, and in this case the results of the belief, poison to the body. Hopefully one day humans will get beyond the need to have some sort of made up explanation for what we can’t really understand.

    Religion is poison!!

  11. Hi Max,
    Certainly education has a role, but by itself it is amoral. Educated crooks and con men are numerous and everywhere.
    Earold’s testimony supports my view. ” It led to me actually reading the bible, for the first time, which is all it takes to wake up from the fantasy, for anyone who is moral.” Exposure to bad ideas and bad people cannot be avoided. A sense of morality and justice is the sorting mechanism necessary to choose wisely.

  12. Samuel, Sorry to disappoint, but I live in a cosmopolitan northeast urban area and am Catholic. Also, there are many educated people here who know their history–especially that of our Founding Fathers who feared “kings” and “royal” style government more than just about anything. Many people here also know their 20th Century history that makes fools of people who put their faith in government. Government is a necessity, but it is government that should be treated and “watchdogged” as potentially as dangerous as any snake-handler. When people begin to virtually idol worship government or its policies or its leaders (as so many Americans on both right and left do) there is a problem brewing.
    Unfortunately to keep government under the wraps it properly belongs under, sometimes one has to swallow hard and accept Nazis marching through Skokie. And you don’t go around intimidating nuns (as if one could) because they don’t have government approved consciences.

  13. Not all religion is poison Just as one has to be careful in picking a political party or philosophy one needs to be careful in picking a church or religion
    . A polish pope was instrumental in helping half of Europe escape Communist-atheist tyranny.
    The Red Cross was originally founded by a Catholic saint.
    Universities were originally Catholic creations.
    Our whole understanding of genetics began with the discoveries of an Augustinian monk. Our modern insights into the origins of the universe began with the discoveries of a Jesuit priest.
    And I could go on and on with such examples.
    But that isn’t as entertaining as wallowing in the sins or weird goings on of some Christians.

  14. Your position is a knee-jerk reaction to any kind of action where the government shows some public concern. Its fairly ignorant of over a century of discussion of the subject of free exercise of religion.

    Religious freedom still doesn’t allow one to have multiple spouses, commit human sacrifices or use controlled substances as sacrament. There has always been limits to how much leeway one gives to religious rites when they conflict with government interests.

    Government has a clear interest in keeping dangerous animals out of the hands of people who are likely to abuse them or put themselves and others in unnecessary risk from them. Using your arguments, government can never do anything in its interests. It gets ridiculous after a while. Frankly, if you voted for politicians who have such a stance, you wasted your vote. You essentially assented to people who promised never to do a job they were hired to do, but were still paid for it.

    Coots was no professional animal handler. He did not treat the animals with the respect expected when one is concerned for their well being. Nor did he show concern the well being of others who may come into contact with the snakes.

  15. It is amazing how people are wiling to turn themselves over so easily to the tender mercies of the government. Government can be trusted to do anything it deems is in “ITS” interests, as was said above????. Yes, let the government decide everything it wants to do, let it control all we say, think, or do whenever it wants to.
    It wants to go after foolish snake handlers–fine. Now lets outlaw auto racing–everyone in my family considers it a foolish dangerous sport that frequently leads to drivers being killed—and bystanders killed who have been brainwashed to be in the auto-car congregation..
    Many people feel auto racing is no more a real sport than snake-handling is a serious religion. And if the government feels the same way, then it can willy-nilly outlaw it as in the government’s interest????? And as for the poor snakes that need protection from the snake-handlers–how about the abused greyhounds and horses in some racing.

  16. Your answers, Deacon John, are at best evasive non-answers. Government is not the big, bad enemy you make it out to be. Our government is of, for and by the people. What is wrong with government pretty much mirrors what is wrong with the people. To “drown government in a bathtub is to drown yourself. Also I have been told on more than one occasion that I just didn’t have enough faith to be healed of my blindness, which occured in August of 1998. Between those hurtful and unwanted remarks and attending some churches which more resembled a cult than a church, I no longer attend church. I wouldn’t exactly call myself an atheist but more a belief in something but not so much that I end up doing the exact opposite of what Jesus taught. Does that make sense? It does to me, in that I have a faith, which I do and don’t keep to myself. I do keep it to myself in the sense of I will not use my faith to force my beliefs on anyone else. I don’t keep it to myself in the sense of doing the works as best I can that Jesus taught us to do. Marx said that “religion is the drug of the people”. I firmly believe that and in my mind religion should not be a drug that we are addicted to or blindly follow. Rather religion at best should be focused on those things which can be summed up in the words “Love others as you love yourself. Past that it’s all opinion and conjecture. Also past that I totally agree with the other John, Atheist Max and Mr. Gunter’s comments!

  17. “A polish pope was instrumental in helping half of Europe escape Communist-atheist tyranny.”
    There are the facts, and there is the interpretation of the facts. Ain’t it peculiar that Western Europe has so many non believers?
    I have no numbers at hand, but I would be interested to know if the former communist area is a irreligious as the West. I suspect it is not.

    As to the religion is poison position. It is, but it does not have to be. Again, a sense of morality and justice is required to leaven religion and keep it
    from becoming toxic. There are plenty of good religious people, despite the evil potential of their beliefs.

  18. Your arguments make stop signs look like an attack on your god given freedom of movement. In making such sweeping generalities, you take some legitimate concerns to a ridiculous extreme.

    Government’s interests are our interests. People elect government officials to represent them. The government in, its role of actually governing, has interests in maintaining public order and using its powers to ensure some measure of safety.

    We have laws to prevent amateurs from harming themselves and others from handling obviously lethal animals. Such laws also protect the animals themselves. We have them because there is obvious public concern for such things. Government interests are our interests.

    Its telling you have to resort to a ridiculous analogy for your point. Like all bad analogies, it is punctured by the fact that auto racing is government regulated (just ask Justin Bieber). Racing strips are government regulated to lower potential audience fatality potential.

    Furthermore, auto racers are PROFESSIONALS who have to use a regulated level of safety equipment in their vehicles and on their person. We give professionals more leeway in handling dangers because they presumably have to go through a regulatory process which instills a measure of responsibility and knowledge of safety. This is unlike a religious amateur who intentionally ignores safety procedures, willingly endangers others and abuses animals without regard.

    As for the greyhounds and horses, there needs to be stricter regulation of their care in professional settings. You would oppose such things. Under your arguments, they should be abused with impunity because it is our right to do so.

  19. I mentioned before–we do have a need of government. I am not some sort of anarchist. But how far should we allow government to go in controlling our lives and even our consciences. Whenever this is happening–we should strongly question what is happening–and side with the least government involvement. A lot of commenters here seem to think–because of bizarre cases like the snake handlers– the government (and its bureaucrats and officials) should have the right to do pretty much what it wants to do–and in some cases this is happening. Yet we are supposed to be the “watchdogs” of what the government does and not lapdogs for the government.
    Historically this is how government sucks up power–go after the , unpopular targets. In 1930’s Germany it was the Jews who were made unpopular by propaganda and lies and we know how that wound up as the Nazi government took that unpopularity (that it mostly created) and used it for immense evil.
    I do not fear a few loose nuts who misuse or misinterpret the Bible. But I do fear a public that virtually worships the government and puts almost absolute trust in it and its actions.(as is clear many Americans do today).A bunch of snake handlers aren’t going to bother me because I won’t have anything to do with them. But if the government goes too far or goes amuck–how do I avoid its coercive police powers???
    Look at all who died in Waco and Ruby Ridge because of government paranoia about tiny religious cults. If some families do some stupid things –like join such cults–does that give the government the right to send a tank after them (and wind up incinerating them) or shoot down a mother with babe in arms????.I think it was Jefferson or Franklin that said something like “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” with regard to protecting our freedoms from potential government tyranny.

  20. Author

    I do think you need to recognize that hostility to minority religion often comes from the people, not the government. Consider the case of the mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, where county government has spent over $300k defending its perfectly proper decision to provide a zoning permit to the mosque against anti-Muslim citizens.

  21. Snake handling is a subset of “faith” demonstration. Faith in Christianity means trust/loyalty (mostly). First to God, then to the organization. The “do not tempt God” rule is rooted also in trust/loyalty. Which handle to use when grabbing an idea is the essence of the concept of judgement. The snake handlers trivialize these ideas.
    “Even the Gods are defeated by stupidity”

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