Church Snakes and State Law -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The right to freely exercise one's religion is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, but how broad is this guarantee to religious liberty?  Can the State impinge on one's religious practices?  It does, of course.  The Mormons learned this more than a century ago, when the Federal Government banned plural marriage.  Today, only marginal versions of the LDS tradition seek to keep up the old ways.  More recently we've heard much about the Affordable Care Act impinging on religious freedom by requiring that all health plans cover contraception.  In this article, Martin Marty raises the question of snake handling, which apparently crosses certain legal boundaries.  Do religious groups have the right to keep snakes for religious purposes as an expression of their religious liberty?  In other words, what gives when the laws of state conflict with one's beliefs?  Take a read and offer your thoughts.


Church Snakes and State Law
Monday | Nov 18 2013
Maria Dryfhout /        
 “Asserting a God-Given Right to Snakes” is the kind of headline which can grab attention in the midst of news-of-the-week about the Affordable Care Act, the catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines, and other beckoners for public notice. (The New York Times, November 16, 2013; see link below). The subtitle further inspires curiosity: “Tennessee Pastor Disputes Wildlife Possession Charge by State.”

One does not need to be “into” snakes—I, for one, am not—in order to be motivated to read on. Nor need one comment on all cases which the United States Supreme Court takes up in the category of “Church/State Issues” to find reasons to care about this one, if not for its intrinsic interest, but for extrinsic illustration.

According to author, Alan Blinder, there are only about 125 smallish churches which claim to live by a promise of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that believers can take up presumably poisonous snakes and not be fatally harmed. (Though pastor Mack Wolford was bitten and died last year.) Not all the complaints of these aggrieved churches, most of them sequestered in East Tennessee, need inspire deliberation in a few hundred-thousand churches in the U.S.A.

One might even argue that snake-handling churches inspire curiosity and notice far beyond their place in the economy of religions in pluralist America. Snakes, placards demanding them, red-shirted pastors [red for the blood of Christ] will always draw the eye, the camera, and the microphone more readily than will the late service of a suburban Protestant church or the sixth mass at a half-filled Catholic church.

So, what is up “extrinsically?” Those who watch the Supreme Court and less-than-supreme courts deal with “church and state” have to reflect, and do reflect, on the limits of religious freedom, as these are defined and argued these years. Any reference book on the subject gives much notice to what many regard as off-beat religions: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and “peace churches” which are pure-pacifist. Every one of them brought cases to courts because some of their expressions were rejected as being opposed to law and the common good.

These days citizens are being asked to stretch their understandings of free exercise cases. Most familiar on the internet are innumerable complaints that believers are being persecuted, for example because some now-legal expressions offend their interpretations of scripture. Dare the government allow or enact policies such as providing birth control information as part of the Affordable Care Act? Dare the government suppress "our” particular prayer in public places?

We think of these against the background of historic cases in which not everyone gets what they want. Pacifists are taxed and pay for military ventures, which they believe to be evil. Christian Scientists cannot not avoid “medicine’ when they drink water from the tap, because it contains fluoride. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ children are sometimes seized when the government insists on vaccinations, which violate the Witnesses’ interpretation of scripture.

They do not win, nor will all of the current protesters. We know to take the protests seriously, as the public and the courts will, in the snake-handling cases. But in a constitutional republic, even one which interprets “free exercise” broadly, not everyone’s conscientious scruples will be regarded as privileged over and against larger societal norms. That reality may be sad, but it cannot go away in a nation of laws.

References and Further Reading:

Blinder, Alan. “Tennessee Pastor Disputes Wildlife Possession Charge by State.” The New York Times, November 15, 2013.

Boucher, Dave. “Timber rattler bites, kills snake-handling preacher.” Charleston Daily Mail, May 29, 2012.

Smietana, Bob. “A reality TV show about snake handlers to debut in September.” The Washington Post, August 14, 2013.

National Geographic Channel series, “Snake Salvation.”

Tabo, Tamara. “Snakes in a Church: Should the Law Protect the Religious Liberty of Serpent-Handlers?" Above the Law, November 14, 2013.

Duin, Julia. “Serpents, God and the Law Clash in ‘Snake Salvation’ Case." The Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2013.

Coots, Jamie. “The Constitution Protects My Snake-Handling: It’s an exotic religious practice to many, yes, but no less deserving of protection.” The Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2013.

Photo Credit: Maria Dryfhout /
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.
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