Sunday, November 17, 2013

From "Snake Salvation" to Incarceration?

Reverend Andrew Hamblin, the pastor of the church featured on National Geographic’s TV Series “Snake Salvationwill be charged with 53 counts of possession of a venomous snake.  Ironically, his recent fame and his church enjoyed through the TV show alerted the authorities of his criminal action which prompted a raid of his church and the confiscation of his 53 venomous snakes.  The maximum sentence for each count of possessing a venomous snake is one year in prison.

Though this may sound strange, a passage in the Gospel of Mark supports the practice of incorporating snakes in worship as performed by Hamblin's Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee.  Mark 16:18 reads:

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Despite being a sincere belief, acting upon such beliefs is illegal in Tennessee.  After a series of deaths at churches that incorporated snakes into worship services, the state passed a law in 1947 forbidding the practice to take place.  The state’s reasoning in passing the law was that the compelling state interest of not having people be killed by snakes outweighed all concerns for free exercise.  In the 1975 case Swann v. Pack, the law was challenged but upheld in the Tennessee State Supreme Court.  No exemption was given as the court reiterated the desire of the state to protect citizens, even willing citizens, from the harm that serpents could deliver.  The court took the measure a step further, calling all public snake handlers a nuisance to society.

Hamblin plans to plead not guilty to the charges, and despite being in clear violation of the law, he may have a chance to avoid punishment on the basis of the free exercise clause.  The Swann decision will certainly be working against him in court, but a more recent case contradicts Swann and supports Hamblin’s argument.  In the 2003 Blackhawk v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania case, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court granted a Native American man an exemption to a law forbidding the ownership of black bears.  While the state and dangerous animal in question are different in the Blackhawk case, this decision sets the precedent for allowing religious exemptions to laws that forbid ownership of dangerous animals.

Furthermore, Hamblin will be the beneficiary of a recent Tennessee statute, the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is directed to limit the restrictions that the state can place on the free exercise of individuals.  This act requires the state to have a compelling interest to intervene and use the least restrictive means possible upon intervention.  Though some disagree, I find that the state has a compelling interest in not having people being killed by snakes, but it is unclear what the least restrictive means avoid such tragedy would be.

The no-harm principle is relevant to this case but not in the traditional way.  Since the church attendance is strictly voluntary, harm could befall only those who choose to put themselves in harm’s way.  Barring an escape of Hamblin’s snakes in a Planet of the Apes type of way, anyone not associated with the church will not be harmed.  Voluntarily putting oneself in harm’s way does not necessarily mean that one will be granted a religious exemption.  Since human sacrifice will never be legalized there is a barometer for which to gauge group inflicted harm.  The question is where to draw the line.

What about the kids?  Hamblin’s church and other snake handling churches like it do not allow children under 18 years old to be near the snakes.  While danger is still present by having the children in the same building as the snakes, the greatest danger is to Hamblin himself and other adult members of the congregation.

I believe that the Hamblin should be granted an exemption and acquitted on all charges.  While an accident may happen due to the nature of these creatures, I believe that on the basis of the free exercise clause, Hamblin has the right to freely exercise his religion.

The first point in his favor is sincerity of his belief.  Although I generally do not believe in judging sincerity, I find it useful in free exercise cases that are seemingly unusual, such as handling snakes, ingesting peyote, or hypothetically, Rob Ford’s church of crack.  Hamblin’s sincerity is proven by justification in a holy book, his own statements about devotion to God through snake handling, and the 3,000 signatures that he collected following the raid of his church.

The next point in his favor is that willing, non-coerced, members of his congregation are the only ones with the potential to be harmed.  The no-harm principle is generally designed to apply to individuals not associated with the church, none of which will be harmed by allowing Hamblin to continue his practice.  For the members of the church who willingly put themselves in harm’s way, it is imperative that they continue to participate in a strictly voluntary basis, but since they understand the risk I believe that they should be allowed to continue handling the snakes.

Finally, Hamblin should be allowed to continue his practice because he takes good care of the kids.  My first reaction to this case was to make sure that no child ever gets near a snake but I was pleased read that Hamblin already had that restriction in place.  Hamblin seems to be aware of the ever-present danger in his practice but he has shown responsibility in trying to balance safety and adherence to his practice.  The only lack of responsibility demonstrated thus far by Hamblin is through allowing National Geographic to film a TV Series of his church participating in illegal activities.

Hamblin's practice may put his congregation and himself in danger every Sunday but is it the right of the state to intervene and forbid a sincere practice?  Hamblin has said that his only desire is to be able to practice his religion in peace, yet in a country that was founded on the principle of religious liberty, he could be incarcerated for attempting to do so.

What do you think?  Should Hamblin be allowed to continue his practice?  Would your answer change if a member of his church was injured or even killed by a snake?


Liz L. said...

I agree that Hamblin should be granted an exemption. In my opinion, the sincerity of his beliefs is irrelevant. No one is coerced to participate. If someone is killed by the snake during the service, that, while a tragedy, is no one’s fault by that person’s for choosing to attend the service. The government has no right to outlaw this practice, because it is not putting society as a whole at risk. It only effects those who choose to attend. The argument here is whether the government has the authority to prohibit behavior that has the possibility of causing harm or death. This would mean that hang-gliding, skiing, and driving a car, all of which kill more people annually than snake-handling, would also be prohibited.

SC said...

I do not think that Hamblin should be given an exemption. I think not wanting people to get killed by venomous snakes is a perfectly reasonable compelling state interest to hamper Hamblin's free exercise. I also feel that the fact that people willingly attend the church, and thus willingly put themselves in danger, is irrelevant. Even if they are willingly endangering their lives, I do not feel that that is enough to justify allowing something dangerous.

Dylan Smith said...

I think Hamblin should receive an exemption here. He seems to be operating in a relatively safe manner. He doesn't allow kids, which is usually considered an important matter by the court, near the snakes. This shows that he is responsible and recognizes the danger of his practice. The makes the belief all the more sincere, that he would risk his life to practice what he believes. I think it would certainly be an unfair burden to hinder this church's practices. It is also important to my decision that the church is attending of one's own free will. So, I am in favor of an exemption.

Cori T said...

I am fine with Hamblin receiving an exemption. Though there is most definitely a compelling state interest in making sure that people are not dying from venemous snakes, I agree with Dan's train of thought: the belief is sincere, presence at the church is voluntary, Hamblin is mostly handling the snakes, and children are kept away.

If deaths are becoming common at the church, however, then I believe that perhaps the compelling state interest will begin to overrule the case for free exercise.

Dan W said...

To follow up on my last question, I watched an episode today and learned that Hamblin nearly died from a rattlesnakebite three years ago. Is this significant?

Adam J said...

I absolutely think that Hamblin should receive an exemption. This is such a vital part of his practice that it defines this particular religious group. I think that the belief is sincere if he is willing to continue after already almost dying. I don’t think that you can inhibit his belief by eliminating such an important part of it.