Friday, December 20, 2013


A few weeks ago,  a story made the rounds on social media concerning Bibles at a Costco store in Simi Valley, Calif. that were found to be labeled fiction by a pastor looking for a gift. 

When contacted at their headquarters in Washington State, a Costco representative said the company was aware of the situation, explained that it was “human error at a warehouse,” and said the matter had been addressed. Many people referred to the case as the “persecution of Christians.”

The Costco story began to die out, just as the annual Christmas fable about the White House changing the name of the national Christmas tree to Holiday tree began to appear.  It is not true, never was true and can easily be checked out, but since at least 2009 it has appeared every year and been used as an example of Christian persecution.

At the same time as the Costco matter was being debated, a case that might be genuinely viewed as government persecution of a Christian denomination in Campbell County, Tennessee was already working its way through the court system and being ignored by fundamentalist First Amendment advocates – maybe because most Christians don’t practice snake handling and are embarrassed that it still happens.

Andrew Hamblin, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, had pleaded not guilty to, among other things, "possession of Class 1 wildlife, and a species inherently dangerous to humans."  The case is now on its way to a grand jury to determine if the charges will be upheld.

Reportedly, officials first went to the pastor’s home, then to the church itself to seize his snakes. One assumes that the authorities became aware of the snakes because of the semi-public handling by church members during their services.

Before letting your indignation run wild, let me say that I think handling serpents as a test of faith is bad theology, and people who keep exotic or wild reptiles should be aware of the proper care of the creatures, else it becomes plain animal abuse. 

Also, without a doubt, if children are present when poisonous snakes are being passed around, the state does have a valid interest in their welfare.

That having been said, I believe Pastor Hamblin is right when he says that what is happening in the matter “is a fight for freedom of religion.” To my knowledge the pastor of Tabernacle Church of God has no advanced degrees in theology-- but the same can be said of numerous pastors, perhaps the majority, of even those considered mainstream, especially in Appalachia.

Years ago, mail-order ministers from one of the groups that call themselves Universal Life Churches -- and issue ordination certificates over the Internet to all who request them -- began performing marriages at wedding chapels in Sevier County, Tennessee and the real ministers tried to put a stop to it.

I pointed out then that as far as the U.S. Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution are concerned, they are all real, because freedom of religion means just that. A religion is exactly what the practitioners say it is -- though it is, or should be understood, that the rights of a religious group end where the rights of others begin. 

Those who disrupt the lives and free movement of other citizens or proselytize on state controlled property can’t legally justify their actions by saying God told them to do it – though this often happens when the overzealous decide to deliver sermons in someone else’s church, a place of business or on a busy highway.

The laws of civil order still apply, even to religion.

Just because the practices of this particular group are distasteful to other Christian denominations is not a reason to ignore their rights. Accommodations are routinely made for other religious groups – who do not swear oaths, work on the Sabbath, are pacifists or have dietary demands that differ from the majority.

The people who sincerely believe handling vipers is a requirement of faith take it as seriously as the adherents any other denomination, and to them it is not a joke, any more than baptism, communion and confirmation is to older denominations.

I don't know the solution to this particular problem, but I do know that at a time when some people are calling any and every criticism of a church persecution -- even for zoning violations -- that the handlers of poisonous vipers, whose faith seems, to be above question, deserve more than to be causally dismissed as lunatics.

One might stretch the meaning of laws that prohibit suicide as a reason for not allowing members to handle poisonous snakes, but the intent of handling snakes is to prove faith, not to kill themselves, no matter how distasteful it may be to others.

What adults do of their own free will, as long as it endangers nobody else, should not be subject to government intervention, even without citing freedom of religion.

This is my view of religious freedom. I don't claim to be an expert on Constitutional law, but I do understand the definitions of religious freedom and equality under the law. I’m aware that my perspective seems a bit radical, but I was born in a country founded by the most brilliant group of radicals who ever lived.

We either have freedom of religion or we don't and it is not a requirement that religious activities be fashionable or socially accepted to the majority. In Europe, there was a time when religious radicals (heretics) were executed for practicing their faith, but our founders strove to prevent such things in their new republic..

In Campbell County, Tennessee there is a conflict between the laws of the state and a religion that harms only the legal adults who participate, and I’m watching closely.

1 comment:

Ad Astra Per Aspera said...

Hi David, up to a point, I agree with what you are saying. But no freedom, even freedom of religion, is absolute. They are exist in a dynamic tension with other freedoms, and the edges and overlaps of one freedom with another often cause one freedom to give sway, to a degree, to another. In the case you mentioned, for example, what happens if someone handling a snake gets bitten by that poisonous reptile? Does he or she then get taken to an emergency room for treatment or left to live or die based on someone's belief that his or her belief will save him? And if he or she is taken to a hospital and he or she doesn't have insurance, who pays? In many such cases, it is those of us who have insurance covering those who don't (or won't) get it. After all, shouldn't my faith, if true and good and pure, protect me from illness as well? But if it doesn't then all the rest of us with insurance wind up "covering" for this person's faith. And once that happens, you have started to force your right into my pocketbook, which means I do have a say then. Now, if you want to require all snake handlers have adequate insurance before they handle poisonous serpents, then I might have less of an issue with it, but what do you want to bet that most of these folks don't have insurance, but might wind up at a local hospital? --Thoughts from another lesser-known David