Foster Parents Who Refused to Stop Attending Snake-Handling Services Sue After Losing License

A southeastern Kentucky couple who say they refused to agree not to attend snake-handling religious services have sued a foster-care agency after their license was revoked.

Melissa Dixon, a lawyer for Jason and Tammy Barrett of Laurel County, wouldn't say whether the Barretts have handled snakes before but said they have never taken their foster children to the services. They also promised not to take the children to such services, she said.

Dixon said the Barretts hope the public will focus on the religious freedom issues in the lawsuit rather than on snake-handling.

The Barretts allege that Lifeway for Youth Kentucky, a foster-care agency that contracts with the state, violated their constitutional rights. They say the agency revoked their license and took custody of the foster children in their care in November 2006 because they had formerly attended services where snakes were handled.

Officials at Lifeway's Lexington office did not return a phone call for comment.

The Barretts are still licensed foster parents through another agency, Dixon said. They've been licensed since October 2005, and they are licensed to care for kids with special needs.

"Mr. and Mrs. Barrett became foster parents because they felt it was in their heart to help children and it was something they felt in their heart ... they needed to do," Dixon said.

Jason Barrett, a Holiness faith evangelist, was a founding member of his church in 2005, helped start new churches in other states and helped save struggling churches, Dixon said. She declined to disclose the name of Barrett's church.

The church no longer participates in the practice, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in London on Wednesday. It names Lifeway, nine of its employees and the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Linda F. Long, 48, of London, died last year after she was bitten in the face by a rattlesnake during a service at East London Holiness Church. Her family is suing Marymount Medical Center in London over allegations that members of the medical staff made derogatory comments about her religious beliefs rather than providing proper care.

The Barretts' lawsuit alleges that Lifeway revoked their license because of news coverage of Long's death.

"From the information I have been able to gather, they (Lifeway officials) were concerned with their own liability and public image," Dixon said.

In Ohio, a 3-year-old mentally disabled boy died last year after the family Lifeway placed him with bound him with a blanket and left him in a closet. State officials there have been trying to revoke the agency's license.