Snake Handling and the First Amendment

The Knoxville, TN, station WBIR has a report on an potential legal battle involving snake handling:

Snake Handling: Law vs. First Amendment rights

A LaFollette pastor headed to court next week for having dozens of poisonous snakes at his church said the laws he allegedly violated in Tennessee infringe on his freedom of religion.

Thursday Andrew Hamblin, at Tabernacle Church of God, was cited for possession of class 1 wildlife, a class c misdemeanor. He said he knew serpent handling was illegal, but said the law violates his First Amendment rights.

10News talked to lawyers, professors, and TWRA officials, who said he’s fighting a losing battle.

“The court would hold, most likely hold, I should say, that under the First Amendment, he would have no claim,” said Akram Faizer, assistant professor of law at Lincoln Memorial University.

Faizer goes on to explain that since the laws against unlicensed ownership of wild animals is not specifically targeting snake handling Christians then it will be hard to claim First Amendment protection. You can also factor in that the government has a legitimate interest in overseeing the possession of potentially dangerous wild animals, both for the sake of the public and for any rights that the animals might be said to have.

I’ve noticed that courts will occasionally side with respected religious groups when their beliefs conflict with secular law. The Mennonites are an example. My guess is that few courts will be sympathetic to snake handlers.

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