Feb. 17, 2014— -- The "snake handling" pastor of a small Pentecostal church in Kentucky died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a weekend church service.
Jamie Coots, the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky., was handling a rattlesnake during a service when he was bitten on his right hand Saturday night. But when the ambulance arrived at 8:30 p.m., the EMS team found that Coots had gone home, according to a statement from the Middlesboro Police Department.
Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe told ABC News that, according to people at the church, Coots verbally refused treatment at the church. He said Coots was unconscious when he got to his house. When the ambulance crew arrived at Coots' home, his wife Linda Coots signed a form declining medical treatment, police said.
Emergency personnel left about 9:10 p.m. that night. When they returned about an hour later to check on Coots, police said he was dead from a venomous snake bite.
The snake-handling pastor's son Cody Coots said his father had handled the snake that bit him many times before.
"The snake that bit him, we've been carrying him to the church for about four months," Cody Coots told CBS affiliate WYMT in Hazard, Ky. "It's been carried hundreds of times, handled all kinds of times but now when it's your time to go, it's just your time to go."
It's estimated that 125 churches in the United States use poisonous snakes during services today, with many clustered in the South. In tiny churches tucked away in rural Appalachia, "snake handling" is a long-standing tradition, one that took root in this region more than a century ago.
These pastors believe that to "take up serpents" is a form of religious expression. In the King James Bible, Mark 16:18 says, "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them."
Coots and his followers believe that God calls upon them to handle venomous serpents and to drink other poisons. Even if they are bitten, they will refuse medical treatment because they believe that they are worthy of God's faith, and that their fate is in God's hands.
But local authorities see these snakes as a reckless, even dangerous menace to public safety. Religious snake handling has been outlawed in most states, including Kentucky and Tennessee. Several snake-handling practitioners across the country have died after being bitten, and there are concerns about the poisonous snakes being let loose in communities.
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.
Four generations of Coots' family have handled serpents as Pentecostal preachers, from his grandfather down through his grown son.
Despite his father's death, Cody Coots said he doesn't believe snake handling is dangerous. "It's the word of God," he said. "We've always said it's a good way to live by and a good way to die by."
Prior to his death, Pastor Coots himself had been bitten nine times, and each time he refused medical attention.
When "Nightline" spoke with him at his church in November, Coots scoffed at the notion that he was taking the Bible too literally.
"To me that's what God taught me to be about," he said.
Coots and another snake-handling pastor, Andrew Hamblin of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., appeared in the National Geographic special, "Snake Salvation" last year -- Coots had been Hamblin's mentor. After the special aired, Tennessee authorities cracked down on Hamblin.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials seized 50 poisonous snakes, including rattlesnakes and copperheads, from Hamblin in November and cited him for illegally possessing dangerous animals. Hamblin claimed the state was violating his First Amendment religious rights and pleaded not guilty to the charges. The case was eventually dismissed.
Police said Hamblin was at Coots' church this weekend when the pastor was bit by the rattlesnake and later at his house when Coots died, but Hamblin declined to comment to ABC News about the incident.