Oct 4, 2013

Snake handling and the First Amendment

Jamie Coots, a snake-handling Pentecostal who has recently been featured on a reality TV show, is taking his moment of fame to defend the constitutional right of his religious practice. Religious liberty, he says, should extend even to the little, peculiar sects.

In the Wall Street Journal, he writes:
As pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, a Pentecostal church in Middlesboro, Ky., I and my congregants regularly handle venomous snakes such as copperheads and rattlesnakes as part of our services. This might seem strange, but it's no less worthy of legal protection than the more common traditions observed by Jews, Muslims and mainstream Christians. In fact, as members of a small and unpopular religious minority, congregants of serpent-handling churches are precisely the sort of worshipers that the Constitution was designed to protect.
Snake handling, though recognized as a religious act since at least 1910, is against the law is most states. Coots has been arrested and fined a number of times for possessing poisonous snakes -- in one case 74 of them. "Practicing my faith," he writes, "remains a crime across the country ... While the risk of arrest hasn't weakened my religious conviction, it has forced me to question America's commitment to religious liberty."

As far as I know, this is the first time a snake handler has written an op-ed for a major American paper. Coots, along with some other young snake handlers, have been using media differently than generations past, including, now, participating in the national debate over religious liberty and the meaning of the First Amendment's promise about "free exercise thereof."