Pentecostal Pastors Argue 'Snake Handling' Is Their Religious Right

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Tennessee authorities say people began complaining once they saw the snake-handling religious services in their communities and were afraid the poisonous snakes might get loose.

"The list just goes on and on for the qualifications you have to meet to possess these species. Obviously a small church building with a locked door doesn't qualify. Anyone could get inside the building and let the snakes out as a joke," said Matthew Cameron of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "He doesn't have the knowledge to possess these things and care for them as they need to be cared for."

A Tennessee law banning ownership of poisonous reptiles was passed back in 1947 after five worshippers were killed over two years. Pastor Coots even had a parishioner die in 1995 after she was bit by a rattlesnake during one of his services and refused an anti-venom treatment. No charges were filed in Kentucky.

But getting bit by a venomous snake is a clear and present danger. Coots himself has been bitten nine times, and each time he refused medical attention. The worst time, he said, was when a rattlesnake bit his middle finger. Eventually the finger died and broke off his hand.

But Coots scoffed at the notion that he is taking the Bible too literally.

"To me that's what god taught me to be about," he said. "I'm not telling people to handle snakes."

Hamblin said he agreed to be on the National Geographic special to erase some of the misunderstanding and mistrust of his type of ministry. He denied that his church is a cult, saying they are Christian "just like any other Christian," and banning snake handling is a form of religious persecution.

"I'm not asking anyone to agree with me or believe like me," he said. "I've never told anybody that they need to take up serpents to go to heaven, to be a Christian."

Coots says his flock lives by a stricter moral code than most -- no drugs, no alcohol, women don't cut their hair or wear pants -- and if their way of life and the way they choose to worship sets them apart, then so be it.

While it's unclear whether Coots will face prosecution in Kentucky, the Tennessee District Attorney General said she plans to prosecute Hamblin, even though the pastor sees it as religious persecution, because much of the fallout from the case has prompted genuine concern for public safety.

"We feel like we're trying to enforce the law? just trying to keep people safe and make sure the law is being followed," Phillips-Jones said.

Hamblin, on the other hand, said he plans to keep handling snakes.

"As long as there's breath in my body, I'm taking up serpents," he said. "I've come too far. I can't back down on it... I've seen too many miracles happen in churches."

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