Originally posted on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

“Asserting a God-Given Right to Snakes” is the kind of headline which can grab attention in the midst of news-of-the-week about the Affordable Care Act, the catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines, and other beckoners for public notice. (The New York Times, November 16, 2013; see link below). The subtitle further inspires curiosity: “Tennessee Pastor Disputes Wildlife Possession Charge by State.”

One does not need to be “into” snakes—I, for one, am not—in order to be motivated to read on. Nor need one comment on all cases which the United States Supreme Court takes up in the category of “Church/State Issues” to find reasons to care about this one, if not for its intrinsic interest, but for extrinsic illustration.

According to author, Alan Blinder, there are only about 125 smallish churches which claim to live by a promise of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that believers can take up presumably poisonous snakes and not be fatally harmed. (Though pastor Mack Wolford was bitten and died last year.) Not all the complaints of these aggrieved churches, most of them sequestered in East Tennessee, need inspire deliberation in a few hundred-thousand churches in the U.S.A.

One might even argue that snake-handling churches inspire curiosity and notice far beyond their place in the economy of religions in pluralist America. Snakes, placards demanding them, red-shirted pastors [red for the blood of Christ] will always draw the eye, the camera, and the microphone more readily than will the late service of a suburban Protestant church or the sixth mass at a half-filled Catholic church.

So, what is up “extrinsically?” Those who watch the Supreme Court and less-than-supreme courts deal with “church and state” have to reflect, and do reflect, on the limits of religious freedom, as these are defined and argued these years. Any reference book on the subject gives much notice to what many regard as off-beat religions: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and “peace churches” which are pure-pacifist. Every one of them brought cases to courts because some of their expressions were rejected as being opposed to law and the common good.

These days citizens are being asked to stretch their understandings of free exercise cases. Most familiar on the internet are innumerable complaints that believers are being persecuted, for example because some now-legal expressions offend their interpretations of scripture. Dare the government allow or enact policies such as providing birth control information as part of the Affordable Care Act? Dare the government suppress “our” particular prayer in public places?

We think of these against the background of historic cases in which not everyone gets what they want. Pacifists are taxed and pay for military ventures, which they believe to be evil. Christian Scientists cannot not avoid “medicine’ when they drink water from the tap, because it contains fluoride. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ children are sometimes seized when the government insists on vaccinations, which violate the Witnesses’ interpretation of scripture.

They do not win, nor will all of the current protesters. We know to take the protests seriously, as the public and the courts will, in the snake-handling cases. But in a constitutional republic, even one which interprets “free exercise” broadly, not everyone’s conscientious scruples will be regarded as privileged over and against larger societal norms. That reality may be sad, but it cannot go away in a nation of laws.

References and Further Reading:

Blinder, Alan. “Tennessee Pastor Disputes Wildlife Possession Charge by State.” The New York Times, November 15, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/us/tennessee-pastor-disputes-wildlife-possession-charge-by-state.html.

Boucher, Dave. “Timber rattler bites, kills snake-handling preacher.” Charleston Daily Mail, May 29, 2012. http://www.dailymail.com/News/201205290190.

Smietana, Bob. “A reality TV show about snake handlers to debut in September.” The Washington Post, August 14, 2013. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-14/national/41397765_1_andrew-hamblin-tabernacle-church-snakes.

National Geographic Channel series, “Snake Salvation.” http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/snake-salvation/.

Tabo, Tamara. “Snakes in a Church: Should the Law Protect the Religious Liberty of Serpent-Handlers?” Above the Law, November 14, 2013.http://abovethelaw.com/2013/11/snakes-in-a-church-should-the-law-protect-the-religious-liberty-of-serpent-handlers/.

Duin, Julia. “Serpents, God and the Law Clash in ‘Snake Salvation’ Case.” The Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2013. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/11/16/snakes-god-and-the-law-clash-in-tennessee/.

Coots, Jamie. “The Constitution Protects My Snake-Handling: It’s an exotic religious practice to many, yes, but no less deserving of protection.” The Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2013.http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303796404579101831593270054.

Originally posted on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Categories: Beliefs, Politics

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


  1. Part of me thinks that these guys deserve the inevitable envenoming and not at all pleasant death which comes from irresponsibly handling poisonous snakes. Welcoming their practices as simple “winnowing out a silly herd”.

    The other part feels bad for emergency services to have to waste their time on saving these guys and for the snakes themselves which are being abused in the name of religion.

  2. While the practice comes off as quite odd, I do not believe that we should be referring to them as a “silly herd”. I believe it says something about our government deals with modern day free exercise cases if we can already guarantee that the protestors for the church will lose. Was one of the purposes of the Free Exercise Clause not to protect those who go against social norms? Their practices may be dangerous, but that doesn’t mean that their religion should be treated as some sort of sideshow

    • Its animal abuse, but its for the Lord, so its OK. Give me a break.

      Free Exercise is not an excuse to disobey laws having nothing to do with religion. Public safety is public safety. It is no more permissible than human sacrifice or temple prostitution.

      Harassing venomous reptiles in a crowded is an inherently dangerous and reckless act. Religious belief or not, its a dangerously stupid practice which the government has every right to control in the interests of the public.

      These are dangerous animals which usually require a ton of permits and licensing to keep in captivity. Usually only specially trained animal handlers are allowed to do this.

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