Handling poisonous snakes and drinking poison are part of worship in some Christian churches. Are these dangerous religious practices protected by the Constitution?
New Testament basis for using snakes and poison
Religious snake handling and poison drinking are based on three New Testament passages.
Mark 16: 17-18: “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.”
Luke 10: 19: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”
In Acts 28:1-6, Apostle Paul was bitten by a venomous snake. The local barbarians took this as a sign that Paul was a murderer. But, when Paul was unharmed, they “changed their minds, and said that he was a god.”
Test of faith and courage
For some Christians, handling poisonous snakes and drinking poison are a test of faith. They demonstrate trust in the Lord.
Deaths during religious ceremonies
Miraculous healing is not guaranteed. If a person dies, it might be proof that their faith was lacking. Or, it could be proof that their faith was so sublime that God chose to bring them home.
Between 1961 and 2015, over a dozen people died from snake handling in West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama. Most of these were pastors. All died from rattlesnake bites.
In 1941, a seven-year-old died in Georgia as the result of being bitten during a religious ceremony. The legislature overreacted by making snake handling a felony subject to the death penalty. Since the punishment was so severe, juries refused to convict.
Drinking poison during religious ceremonies
Snake handling is often accompanied by drinking poison. The poison of choice is strychnine.
In 1973, two Tennessee pastors died during their church service after drinking strychnine to prove their faith.
Outlawing religious snake handling and poison swallowing
Most states outlawed religious snake handling and poison swallowing when it first emerged.
Arrests and prosecutions
In July 2008, ten Christians were arrested, and 125 venomous snakes were confiscated as part of an undercover sting operation in Kentucky.
In 2013, a Tennessee pastor was arrested, and 74 poisonous snakes were seized from his home. He wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that his actions were protected by the U.S. Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. He died the next year from a snakebite.
Protections of Free Exercise of religion
These Christians believe their religious practices are protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
The government argues that there is a compelling state interest in protecting life that outweighs the Constitutional protection of freedom of religion.
In early litigation, some courts ruled that, so long the audience was protected, a person was free to make a religious martyr of himself.
A Leading Case: poisonous snake handling, is an unlawful public nuisance
In 1975, the Tennessee Supreme Court settled the issue. (State v. Pack, Tenn. S.Ct. 527 S.W.2d 99 (1975) It held that the religious practice was a public nuisance.
The court explained that the church was “out of harmony” with modern society by forbidding sodas, tea, coffee, smoking, dancing, cosmetics and jewelry. They opposed medicine as a “sure sign of lack of faith in God’s ability to cure the sick.”
“The handling of snakes in a crowded church sanctuary, with virtually no safeguards, with children roaming about unattended, with the handlers so enraptured and entranced that they are in a virtual state of hysteria and acting under the compulsion of ‘anointment’, we would be derelict in our duty if we did not hold that [the church leaders] conspired to commit a public nuisance and plan to continue to do so. . . . .
The court found “a compelling state interest in guarding against the unnecessary creation of widows and orphans.” The state also had a compelling interest in “a healthy society of citizens capable of paying taxes and bearing firearms.”
In sum, the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, does not protect the deadly practice of snake handling and poison swallowing.
However, the practice continues in some rural Christian churches today.
(Sources: Brett London, “Law and Religion: Cases and Materials,” 6th Ed. Chapter 11, “Civil Disobedience and Illegal Religious Practices,” 1998 (unpublished); “Snake handling in religion,” “Strychnine poisoning,” Wikipedia; “Tennessee: Where Religious Freedom Frees Snake Handlers,” The New Republic, Jan 15, 2014; Vile, “Snake Handling,” http://www.mtsu,edu; “Revealed: The secretive and deadly church service,” http://www.dailymail.co.uk; Williamson and Hood, “Poison drinking in obedience to faith: a phenomenological study of the experience, http://www.tandonline.com, Apr. 21, 2015)