Charges dismissed against pastor who handles serpents

Charges dismissed against pastor who handles serpents

January 9th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy and Mary Helen Miller in Local Regional News

Andrew Hamblin, left, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., talks with his attorney, Mike Hatmaker, after entering a not guilty plea for the illegal possession of more than 50 venomous snakes in Campbell County Sessions Court in this Nov. 15, 2013, file photo.

The legal case against Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling pastor in LaFollette, Tenn., fell apart Wednesday.

A Campbell County grand jury declined to indict him on charges of illegal wildlife possession for having dozens of snakes in his church. The grand jury dismissed the charge Wednesday.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers raided Hamblin's church and confiscated 53 venomous snakes in November 2013.

Hamblin is the 22-year-old pastor at the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette. He starred in the 2013 National Geographic series "Snake Salvation," which highlighted Pentecostals in the Southeast who handle serpents as part of their worship services.

Tennessee law states that a person must obtain a permit to possess venomous snakes, but there's almost no chance of a private citizen being granted a permit from TWRA. They generally go to institutions such as zoos and educational organizations.

Hamblin has embraced the publicity after the TV show and his arrest, allowing journalists into his services and rallying for religious freedom on the courthouse steps. He says that snake-handling -- a practice based on Scripture in the 16th chapter of Mark -- should be brought out of the shadows.

"It's a major step," Hamblin said. "Today was a major victory, not only for serpent-handling people, but for Christians everywhere."

Chattanooga attorney Chris Jones, who specializes in wildlife law, said that every Tennessee county is different, but this ruling may point to how a Campbell County grand jury would act in similar situations down the road.

"In his case, I think it's a great indicator of what could happen in his county, if he is prosecuted again, if they come into his church and take his snakes," Jones said.

The court decision does not mean that TWRA is loosening rules on illegal wildlife possession. And Hamblin said he has no plans to quit handling snakes, despite what Tennessee law dictates.

"As long as I'm pastor at this church," he said.

Contact Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com. Contact Mary Helen Miller at mhmiller@timesfreepress.com.