'Snake Handling': Religious Right or Community Menace?

Pastors argue it is religious persecution to ban them from using snakes in religious ceremonies.
3:00 | 11/21/13

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Transcript for 'Snake Handling': Religious Right or Community Menace?
How far would you go for your faith. Tonight over 100 churches stand in defiance of local laws banning the use of something shocking from their services. Poisonous serpents. Snakes on a pulpit. Christians say they're true believers and vipers are as vital to the religion as the bible itself. The tradition dates back more than a century. Law makers aren't so sure it should survive. I headed down south for our series "faith matters." Reporter: What pastor jamie kutz is doing with the snake is either a christian ritual or criminal conduct depending on who you ask? ♪ ♪ he is a new preacher! Reporter: In tiny churches in rural appalachia what began generations ago as an expression of faith is turning into a fight over religious freedom in america. They believe they are called by god to handle venomous serpents and comes from a passage straight from the bible which they take literally. They pick up serpents. If they drink any deadly poison it will not hurt them. In this small church of fervent believers we saw the pastors lay hand and healing prayer and dance with collected adrenaline. Pastor andrew hamlin appears almost possessed by the holy spirit as he handles poisonous snakes. Even if bitten they refuse medical treatment and rely instead on prayer for healing. Even speaking in tongues. Where is the cottonmouth at. Reporter: Local authorities see it as a reckless dangerous menace to public safety that has taken lives and will take other. He admit heed had snakes. Took us to the church. Officers went in. Picked the snakes up out of his snake room. And, seized them. Reporter: Earlier this month, the state of tennessee seized 50 poise this stakes from pastor hamlin and cited him for illegally possessing them. I'men the united states of america. I have a constitutional right as a -- a right-minded adult. That if I believe so strongly that the spirit of god moves on me, to take a serpents, that i should have my constitutional right to do it. Rancheros Reporter: How is handling a snake a religious expression? Just the same way to me, taking up serpents and our religious ceremonies is like -- the catholic who used wine in their communion on sundays. Reporter: Using snakes during services is a long-standing tradition. One that took root here more than a century ago. His own grandfather handled serpents as a preacher as did his father. Four generations now including his grown son? Kutz mentored hamlin in kentucky now he lives and preaches over the border in tennessee which has stricter laws against even owning deadly snakes. They come right into the house of god and just rip them away. There would be no different if they come in and ripped your bible out of first baptist. Reporter: In court last week, hamlin entered to applause from supporters all wearing red as he pled not guilty to possession of dangerous wildlife. If god moves on me and I feel led by the holy guest to reach my arm into a box of rattlesnakes I should have my religious right to do that. Reporter: The district attorney general says the law applies to everyone and doesn't discriminate based on faith. It's not a religion issue. It is an issue of possessing animals that tennessee law says you are not allowed to possess them. Reporter: Because it is dangerous to other people, right, right? Because of the nature of the animal. It isse isse imated 125 churches use poisonous snakes in the u.S., clustered in the south. Both preachers offered a rare glimpse inside the pent koacostal tradition. After it aired, authorities cracked down. Could be an argument you are going after the case because it came a television case. It is a violation of the law. Lots of people speed. If you pull up to a police car and race your engine and take off in extreme speed, you should expect to get caught. Reporter: So that was tantamount to taunting law enforcement? But the prosecutor says people began complaining once they saw what was going on inside the homes and houses of worship in their neighborhood. Afraid snakes might get loose. The list goes on and on. For qualification that you have to meet to possess the species. And, you know -- obviously -- a small church building with, a locked door doesn't qualify. Oh, my golly. Please tell me they're all in cages. Reporter: He has a permit to keep his 20 or so snakes. He even brought us to the backyard snake shack to show us how he box up serpents before the service. This is the biggest rattle snake we have left. Reporter: The tennessee law banning ownership was passed in 1947, after five worshippers were killed over the course of two years. Pastor kutz had a parishioner die in 1995 after refusing anti-venom following a rattlesnake bite. No charges were filed in kentucky. If someone gets bitten my church. They're not immediate family -- I will call 911. Have the paramedics come out. Let that person tell them I de don't want medical attention. He has been bitten nine times. Each time he refused medical attention. Rattle take here. Reporter: The worst time he says when a timber rattler bit his middle finger. The most panein I ever felt. It was rotten. Something was going on. I didn't know. That much bone was exposed before it broke off. Not so much as an advil. Not so much as an aspirin? No. Reporter: Why keep it? My wife told me when this broke off in the yar, she said i want to keep this. I , why would someone keep that? She said, I will always have a piece of you no matter where you go. ♪ Reporter: Very nice. You are the rock-a-billy preacher who charms snakes. I don't charm them. The lord does. We'll go with the rock-a-billy teacher. You don't think you are taking the bible out of context or too literally. No, ma'am. Not at all. That's what god taught us, god taught me to be right. I am not telling people. If some body stands up says you are hell bound and not part of us. Reporter: Are you a cult? No, we are not a cult. We are christians. Just like any other christian on the face of the earth. Reporter: Do you see this as religious persecution? I do. In a form it is religious persecution. I am not asking no one to agree, or believe like me. I have never told anybody they have to take up serpents to go to heaven. Or take up serpents to be a christian. Reporter: They live by a stricter moral code than most. Holy ghost anin't there no more. Reporter: If their way of life and the way they choose to worship sets them apart they believe it brings them closer to god. It is an inner peace. Don't think of nothing else. You have a love for everybody. No ill feelings. Nothing in your mind, exempt, you know, god has honored me to let me feel his spirit. Reporter: Some people feel that is the press ns ence of god. Some think it is a biochemical reaction your body is having to fear, to danger, to life and death situations. If the bible told me to jump out of the air plan I woue I would. Half supporting the argument for public safety. The rest telling her to keep off the altar. Reporter: The other half of the backlash is people saying you are over zealous. Grandstanding to try to make a case. Correct. And we feel we are just enforcing the law. Just trying to keep the public safe. And make sure that the law is followed. Reporter: Do you see yourself handling snakes in the future? Honey, I see myself as long as there is breath in my body taking up serpents. I have come too far. I can't back down on it. I have seen too many miracles happen in churches. Reporter: For his sect, god's law trumps man's law. Next month, hamlin will half a chance to make his case in the fundamental struggle between church and state in of a tennessee courtroom. The lord will provide. Amen. Amen. So what do you think?

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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