The death of Pastor Jamie Coots, a third-generation snake handler and religious leader of the, w Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Ky., has renewed concerns over the practice and the need to criminalize such conduct. However, criminalization triggers a serious question of free exercise so long as the animals are not being abused or children allowed to handle poisonous snakes.
Coots, 42, was featured on the new National Geographic reality show “Snake Salvation.” His church has had two fatal bites in the less than 10 years. Coots was bitten by a 4-foot timber rattlesnake (right) and later refused treatment. He died at his home.
Notably, in 1942, the state criminalized the use of “any kind of reptile” during religious services. The last time that this law was raised was in 1995 when Melinda Brown, a 28-year-old mother of five, died at Coots’ home from a snake bite received in one of his religious services. The prosecutor moved to indict but a local judge refused to sign the criminal complaint.
The law creates a problematic conflict with free exercise, particularly if you only criminalize religious snake handling. It is possible to handle such snakes which is done not only by these extreme religious sects but also entertainment and educational experts. It would seem that there are a series of steps that can be taken without much controversy. For example, a state could require certification, permits, insurance obligations (which may be hard to come by) or even the presence of an animal expert at public events to protect public safety. A head-on conflict over criminalization would still favor the state on public safety grounds but a sweeping prohibition would raise questions of whether the law is narrowly tailored in light of the bona fide religious belief. As many as 200-300 churches still engage in the practice and based on a passage in the Gospel of Mark. Mark 16:17-18 reads: “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.”
There remains the high risk of liability, though assumption of the risk is obviously a looming defense as is comparative negligence or comparative fault.
I tend to favor allowing people to assume the risks of such actions, particularly when they are motivated by religion, so long as they do not harm the animals or endanger children. After all, this particular article of faith tends to be self-correcting in terms of practitioners left in the gene pool. We last discussed this practice when another minister died 29 years after his father, another minister, died from snake bites.
Source: Kansas City