Leading Snake-Handling Minister Dies Of Snake Bite: Should Religious Snake Handling Be Prosecuted?

300px-SnakehandlingThe 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.

220px-C_horridusCoots, 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.

We previously discussed Coots’ arrest a few year ago.

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

42 thoughts on “Leading Snake-Handling Minister Dies Of Snake Bite: Should Religious Snake Handling Be Prosecuted?”

  1. crazy religions – this is macho stupid stuff, nothing else !
    – I feel very sorry for the snakes !!

  2. the I that I am:

    you write like someone who used to post here. I hope all is well in your world.

  3. The libertarian in me says: “If you want to handle venomous snakes, whether as a religious observance or as an educational experience or just for the thrill that some folks seem to get out of it, it’s your business”. The Darwinist in me says: “Natural selection will resolve any issues caused by adherence to my libertarian views.”

  4. I have mixed feelings about snake handling and other similarly dangerous religious practices. On one hand for better or worse we are incredibly tolerant of religious expression. On the other hand, snake handling poses a very real risk of death or serious injury. Additionally even if its forbidden to children, it could result in the loss of a parent. There are no good answers.

    The best I have is instead of looking at specific religious practices, what about requiring religious leaders who seek tax exemption to seek educational or continuing education credits like LCSWs and Doctors?

  5. I conversed with Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, she insists that it will just be a matter of time before the information hacker becomes uncivil, yet once again.

    We also talked with the Master of Demons and it was inferred that if that unnamed person ever became a guest blogger that there would be mass abandonment on this site.

    In the end, it will all remain the same, dust we arose from and dust we shall return.

  6. More’s the pity, but I admire her for that.

    I’m ashamed to admit I kept watching “Happy Days” after the shark jump, too.

  7. RTC,
    Our lady from KY is not coming back. Not since she discovered another user on this comment board was prying into her (and several other users) personal lives. If that other user is ever banished, she might consider returning, but don’t hold your breath.

  8. Bron said:


    “Eugenics is now known to be pseudo-science.”

    I am not sure how you can say that seeing as how 30 million plus humans have been aborted over the last 40 years. Most the poor and people of color.”

    Have your friend, the genius explain it to you.He is a member of MENSA, right, and not just working in an Apple store? There’s a difference.
    Bruce: Now that’s funny. You get an LOL on that one.
    The snakes need to be poisonous, otherwise it negates the significance of god’s protection of true believers.
    I don’t see a problem with allowing the use of snakes for religious ceremonies, as long as the snakes are captive bred or captured under permit.
    Boy, if this doesn’t lure back a certain lady from Kentucky, nothing will. How we do miss her.

  9. The death of Pastor Jamie Coots, a third-generation snake handler

    three strikes and you’re out.

    pentecostal pastor academy has the same academic credentials as suicide bomber school.

  10. A lot of people who handle snakes worship them. The rattlers seldom kill anyone and usually not those who worship them. Around here we have some cotton mouths that I would never pick up. A rattler is a snake of a different color. A copperhead is more dangerous than a rattler. My parents would not go into my bedroom because of the rattler. The college would not let me have him in the dorm when I went off to college. My rattler now days lives under the house, safe and sound. With his King James version.

  11. I agree that this could pose a major liability on behalf of the church and that it might be mitigated by assumption of risk. Howver I disagree this practice would be made safer by the state licensing it and requiring an expert to be present during the ceremony. Licensing of a religious practice such as worship methods and communion and the like would be used by politicians who oppose such practices to make a de facto prohibition by sanctioning the license and then prosecuting for lack of the license. I do agree that children and the unwilling should not be made to participate in the snake handling and the animals should not be abused. That is a legitimate state interest.

    As for the snake itself I agree with Bron. Why does it need to be venemous?

  12. An age limit would seem appropriate, but those who worship guns are killed accidently, those who race cars on the alter of NASCAR can die suddenly in wrecks, those who pray that their parachute opens are sometimes not granted that prayer, and those who climb mountains are sometimes silenced before they reach the cathedral top. Those who make that ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of their dreams are at least going out with the knowledge of knowing they did it their way. That’s not all bad….

  13. Prosecute? There should be more snake handling and some type of gov’ment grant to help ’em buy more.

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