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Snake handling puts religious freedom, public safety in spotlight after Kentucky death

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    May 6, 2012: Jamie Coots, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church of Middlesboro, Ky., stands on a bench before the church, singing and holding a rattlesnake during service at Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn. Coots died Feb. 16 after being bitten by a rattlesnake. (AP/The Tennessean, Shelley Mays)

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    Dec. 11, 2013: Pastor Jamie Coots prays during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle In Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Ky. Coots died Feb. 16 after being bitten by a rattlesnake. (AP/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dan Henry)

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    Nov. 15, 2013: Tabernacle Church of God Pastor Andrew Hamblin declares his faith in God and his right to handle snakes before his arraignment in Jacksboro, Tenn. Hamblin, who appears on the National Geographic reality television show Snake Salvation, is charged with possession of Class 1 wildlife after more than 50 venomous snakes were confiscated from his church. (AP/J. Miles Cary, Knoxville News Sentinel)

A Kentucky church's insistence on using venomous snakes in Sunday sermons — despite two fatal bites since 1995 — has local authorities trying to find a balance between public safety and religious freedom.

Pastor Jamie Coots, a third-generation snake handler, died on Feb. 15 after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Ky. The 42-year-old preacher refused medical attention and later died at his home, some 19 years after a woman died at the same church from the bite of a 4-foot timber rattlesnake. But despite a 1942 state law explicitly banning the use of “any kind of reptile” during religious services, local officials told FoxNews.com they don't plan to do anything about the serpents.

“Pursuant to his religious beliefs, Jamie Coots was voluntarily handling a poisonous snake,” Bell County Attorney Neil Ward wrote in an email. “No one had a legal duty or right to make Coots seek treatment. I am not aware of any investigation regarding this sad loss.”

" ... Once you’re in that tradition and experience that immediate connection with God, you can’t replicate that experience elsewhere.”

- Paul Williamson, psychology professor, Henderson State University

Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe told FoxNews.com he would not charge anyone for handling a snake at the church unless a child was involved or someone was there against their will.

Coots, whose son Cody will now replace him at the church and has vowed to continues the practice, appeared on the National Geographic reality show "Snake Salvation," which was not renewed for a second season after it finished airing in the fall. In a statement to FoxNews.com, National Geographic officials said they were "constantly struck" by Coots' devout convictions despite the health and legal peril he faced.

"Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith," the statement read. "We were honored to be allowed such unique access to Pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship."

In 1995, Melinda Brown, a 28-year-old mother of five, died at Coots' home two days after being bitten at the church. Her family members later disputed witness accounts that she refused medical treatment. The county attorney at the time — John Golden, who retired in 2003 — sought charges under the 1942 state law but a judge ultimately refused to sign the criminal complaint.

“If the court thought that a trial would act to deter future snake handling in church, my decision would be different,” Bell District Judge James Bowling Jr. wrote. “But you and I both know that this practice is not going to stop either rattlesnakes or snake handlers becoming extinct.”

Despite her death, Brown's husband, John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, continued to handle snakes and he was also killed by a serpent at age 34 in 1998 while preaching at an Alabama church.

Ward said the Kentucky state law allowing for fines of $50 to $100 "for handling a snake in a religious service or gathering" does not apply in Coots' case because he was not bitten in a police officer's presence.

"Since the law says 'a gathering,' does that make reptile shows at a zoo illegal?" Ward wrote in an e-mail. "I do not think that any charges will be filed. However, the county attorney's office will always look at any competent evidence presented by law enforcement."

Residents of Kentucky can possess up to five species of native reptiles or amphibians for personal use without a permit, including copperheads, timber rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. All nonnative species, including vipers, are flatly prohibited and only zoos, government agencies or colleges and universities are not subject to these regulations, according to Mark Marraccini, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources.

The practice of snake handling emerged in the United States during the turn of the 20th century in Appalachia region of the country, first documented in eastern Tennessee. Paul Williamson, a psychology professor at Henderson State University, told FoxNews.com that the basis for the practice is a literal reading of a passage in the Gospel of Mark that reads, in part: "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."

Settlers in the region at the time, Williamson said, lived a very emotional-centric life.

“If you look at the history of the region, it was a very challenging area of the country to settle,” Williamson told FoxNews.com. “The religion that they required needed to be emotionally latent. Formal type of religion was not useful to them.”

Adherents to Pentecostalism, a form of evangelical Protestantism, sought in growing numbers to have a direct, immediate experience with God, Williamson said. A key figure within the movement was George Went Hensley, a Pentecostal minister who preached throughout the South in the early 1900s, including in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia and Florida. In 1955, Hensley died from a snake bite.

While difficult to estimate, Williamson said as many as 200-300 churches still use snakes during services, often native rattlesnakes or copperheads. Other experts said the number was closer to 125. And despite the belief that the practice is limited to rural areas, Williamson said he’s aware of serpent handling at churches in cities like Oklahoma City and even Los Angeles.

“The vast majority of serpent handling churches are very small in membership,” he said. “But people migrate and once you’re in that tradition and experience that immediate connection with God, you can’t replicate that experience elsewhere.”

Pastors who utilize snakes aren’t very trusting of outsiders, Williamson said, and will generally warn parishioners prior to exposing the animal.

“They will say, ‘There’s death in this box,'” Williamson said. “If you handle one, it’s your serpent.”

Local authorities, however, are not quick to enforce laws and regulations pertaining to the practice, due in part to “wide support” from within the community, Williamson said.

“In Appalachia, religion is serious stuff,” he said. “It’s not Sunday morning stuff; it’s every day of the week stuff.”

Roughly 400 people attended Coots’ funeral and Williamson said the mood at the first service after his death — held by his son Cody last Saturday — was anything but somber.

“Jamie is looked upon as a father of the faith,” Williamson said. “He was being obedient and God had a plan for him. Within this tradition, they take many passages of the Bible literally and within their theology, everybody has an appointed time … There was not a wet eye in the house for Jamie. There was joy in the service.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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