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Freedom is good, cruelty is not

By Alex Farmer
On January 24, 2014

Pastor Andrew Hamblin of Lafollette, Tenn., believes firmly in his religion and his right to practice that religion. His religion is actually so unique that it got attention from National Geographic this past fall.

NG aired the show "Snake Salvation" which held 16 episodes displaying Hamblin and his belief in handling poisonous snakes in church. This Pentecostal belief system holds that God has made it clear in the Bible that "man shall take up serpents."

However, these aren't just regular serpents; they are poisonous. The belief for this religion is that a poisonous snake bite will cause no harm to those who are bitten if they are right with God. Most of the show was dedicated to learning about Hamblin's beliefs, and showing him hunting snakes for his church services.

It also tells of how snake-handling has been practiced for over 100 years in this region. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are the snakes of choice for Hamblin. That isn't a surprise since these are the two common species of poisonous snakes in this area of Appalachia.

This does pose a problem for Hamblin and those who practice this religion in Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency can cite anyone for possession of Class 1 wildlife, which could be dangerous to humans. Under this law, fines and jail time are possible.

So, anybody can see that there is a problem within this situation. It is against the law to possess these snakes, but in order for the religion to be practiced, possessing these snakes is required. A great question to ask is if Hamblin knew that it was illegal to possess these snakes, why did he agree to be on a show displaying him housing them in his church?

One could assume that he was trying to get his religion displayed and attempting to bring people to God. After all, that is one of the many jobs of a pastor. He may have accomplished that goal, but he also managed to get a visit from the TWRA shortly after the show finished.

The TWRA seized 53 poisonous snakes and gave Hamblin a court appearance. Luckily for Hamblin, who pleaded not guilty, he will not be faced with any criminal charges after a grand jury chose not to indict him earlier this month. However, Hamblin may feel another wave of pressure pretty soon.

He announced that he will continue to practice his religion, but that news doesn't mix well with the news that broke just this week. All of the snakes that were seized have been euthanized because they were infected with deadly pathogens because they were being kept in poor living conditions.

So, the issue now may not just be about freedom of religion but also of the welfare of the snakes that are being kept. There have been no charges filed against Hamblin for cruelty to these animals. However, one has to believe that this could be an issue for Hamblin in the future. In simple terms, Hamblin should be able to practice the religion of his choice.

The part that is not acceptable is the way these snakes are being maintained. I stand firm on practicing your religion for God in the way that you feel is pleasing to Him. However, I also stand firm on treating animals in a humane manner. My advice to Andrew Hamblin and any other pastor practicing this religion is to be proud of your religion, but also be proud of the way you take care of God's creatures.

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