Snake-Handling Sects and Religious Liberty

2012-09-06 21:50:10

Courts have attempted to reconcile religious freedom with public safety in various cases involving Christians who regard the handling of snakes and consumption of poison as signs, confirmation, and celebration of their religious faith. The use of snakes and poisons is part of the rituals of several small American ‘‘holiness’’ sects, located mostly in Appalachia. The first such organization was founded in rural Tennessee in 1909 by a man who died of snakebite in 1955. Members of these sects base their beliefs and practices on Mark 16:17–18, which reads as follows in the King James version of the Bible:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; and shall Speak with new tongues;

They shall take up serpents; and if they Drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them . . . .

The number of persons who handle snakes or drink poison in religious ceremonies was estimated in 1995 at 2500. During the past sixty years, scores of persons are known to have died from the effects of these practices and many others have suffered nonfatal injuries. In response to these hazards, several southern states have enacted criminal statutes to restrict or prohibit such practices. State courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of these laws on the ground that the government’s compelling interest in protecting the safety and health of its citizens outweighs any burden that the laws impose on the free exercise of religion.

In the most recent case, State ex rel. Swann v. Pack (Tenn. 1975), the Supreme Court of Tennessee unanimously held that a minister and an elder of a snakehandling sect should be enjoined from handling, exhibiting, or displaying poisonous snakes or from consuming poisons, including strychnine. The court held that a lower court erred in confining the scope of the injunction to the display of snakes in a manner that would endanger the life or health of persons who did not consent to exposure to such danger. The court declared that ‘‘the state has a right to protect a person from himself and to demand that he protect his own life.’’ Although the court emphasized that religious freedom requires the government to tolerate ‘‘unusual or bizarre religions,’’ the court explained that no religion ‘‘has an unbridled right to pursue any practice of his own choosing. The right to believe is absolute; the right to act is subject to reasonable regulation designed to protect a Compelling State Interest.’’ Such regulations may include ‘‘outright prohibition, where it involves a clear and present danger to the interests of society.’’

The court’s decision in Swann was consistent with an earlier decision of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, Harden v. State (Tenn. 1948). Decisions in other states likewise have upheld prohibitions on snake handling, even when precautions were taken to protect bystanders from snakes. As the Supreme Court of North Carolina explained in State v. Massey (N.C. 1949), ‘‘the case comes down to a very simple question: Which is superior, the public safety or the defendants’ religious practices? The authorities are at one in holding that the safety of the public comes first.’’ The Court of Appeals of Kentucky upheld a prohibition on snake handling in Lawson v. Commonwealth (Ky. 1942), as did the Court of Appeals of Alabama in Hill v. State (Ala.App. 1956).

These decisions seem to be consistent with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its state counterparts, which require that the government must exempt persons from laws that burden their religious beliefs unless the law is the least restrictive means of promoting a compelling government interest.

In a child custody case, Harris v. Harris (Miss. 1977), the Supreme Court of Mississippi held that a mother who was a member of snake-handling sect had a right to indoctrinate her child in her religious beliefs so long as there was no evidence that she exposed her child to the risk of a snake bite. Members of the mother’s congregation kept a snake caged and never handled it during their services. In Kirk v. Commonwealth (Va. 1947), a Virginia court indicated that a minister could be criminally prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter of his wife, who died after suffering a snake bite during a religious service. The court explained that the trial court properly instructed the jury that ‘‘while the law cannot interfere with a person’s religious belief or opinion, this is no excuse for an illegal act made criminal by the law of the land, even though such act is based on conscientious religious belief.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Burton, Thomas G. Serpent-Handling Believers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
  • Kimbrough, David L. Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
  • La Barre, Weston. They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the Southern Snake-Handling Cult. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Harden v. State, 216 S.W.2d 708 (Tenn. 1948)
  • Harris v. Harris, 343 So.2d 762 (Miss. 1977)
  • Hill v. State, 88 So.2d 880 (Ala.App. 1956), cert. denied, 88 So.2d 887 (Ala. 1956)
  • Kirk v. Commonwealth, 44 S.E.2d 409 (Va. 1947)
  • Lawson v. Commonwealth, 164 S.W.2d 972 (Ky. 1942)
  • State v. Massey, 51 S.E. 2d 179 (N.C. 1949), appeal dismissed, 336 U.S. 942 (1949), rehearing denied, 336 U.S. 971 (1949)
  • State ex rel. Swann v. Pack, 527 S.W.2d 99 (Tenn. 1975), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 954 (1976)
  • 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000bb (2002) (Religious Freedom Restoration Act)

See also Free Exercise Clause (I): History, Background, Framing; Religious Freedom Restoration Act