By JUJU CHANG and SPENCER WILKING
Standing in front of his congregation at a small Pentecostal church in Kentucky, Pastor Jamie Coots held the long, sleek body of a poisonous snake, practicing what he considers a holy Christian sacrament, but what others are calling a threat to public safety.
In tiny churches tucked away in rural Appalachia, "snake handling," which began generations ago as an expression of faith, is turning into a fight over religious freedom.
Coots, the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky., and his followers believe that God calls upon them to handle venomous serpents and to drink other poisons. Even if they are bitten, they will refuse medical treatment because they believe that they are worthy of God's faith, and that their fate is in God's hands.
Using serpents during services is a long-standing tradition, one that took root in this region of Appalachia more than a century ago.
Four generations of Coots' family have handled serpents as Pentecostal preachers, from his grandfather down through his now grown son.
But local authorities see these snakes as a reckless, even dangerous menace to public safety. Religious snake handling has been outlawed in most states, including Kentucky and Tennessee. Several snake-handling practitioners across the country have died after being bitten, and there are concerns about the poisonous snakes being let loose in communities.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials last week seized 50 poisonous snakes, including rattlesnakes and copperheads, from Andrew Hamblin, the pastor of a Pentecostal church called the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., and cited him for illegally possessing dangerous animals. But Hamblin said the state is violating his First Amendment religious rights.
"I'm in the United States of America and I have a constitutional right," he said. "If the spirit of God moves on me and I take up serpents I should have my constitutional right to do it."
These pastors believe that to "take up serpents" is a form of religious expression. In the King James Bible, Mark 16:18 says, "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them."
"For me, taking up serpents is like Catholics using wine in their religious ceremonies," Hamblin said. "If people have their right to do things maybe I don't agree with or uphold, I'm not going to judge them."
Coots mentored Hamblin in his church in Kentucky before Hamblin left for Tennessee, a state with more severe restrictions on dangerous wildlife. Both pastors appeared in the National Geographic special "Snake Salvation," after which Tennessee authorities cracked down on Hamblin.
In court last week, Hamblin appeared before the judge to applause from his supporters, all wearing red, as he pled not guilty to possession of dangerous wildlife.
"If God moves on me and I feel led through him by the Holy Ghost to reach my arm into a box of rattlesnakes I should have my religious right to do that," Hamblin said at a news conference.
But Tennessee District Attorney General Lori Phillips-Jones said the law applies to everyone and doesn't discriminate based on a person's faith. It's about the nature of the poisonous animal, she said.
"It's not a religion issue. It's an issue of possessing an animal that Tennessee law says, you're not allowed to possess them," Phillips-Jones said. "It's a violation of the law."
It's estimated that 125 churches in the United States use poisonous snakes during services today, with many clustered in the South.
Tennessee authorities say people began complaining once they saw the snake-handling religious services in their communities and were afraid the poisonous snakes might get loose.
"The list just goes on and on for the qualifications you have to meet to possess these species. Obviously a small church building with a locked door doesn't qualify. Anyone could get inside the building and let the snakes out as a joke," said Matthew Cameron of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "He doesn't have the knowledge to possess these things and care for them as they need to be cared for."
A Tennessee law banning ownership of poisonous reptiles was passed back in 1947 after five worshippers were killed over two years. Pastor Coots even had a parishioner die in 1995 after she was bit by a rattlesnake during one of his services and refused an anti-venom treatment. No charges were filed in Kentucky.
But getting bit by a venomous snake is a clear and present danger. Coots himself has been bitten nine times, and each time he refused medical attention. The worst time, he said, was when a rattlesnake bit his middle finger. Eventually the finger died and broke off his hand.
But Coots scoffed at the notion that he is taking the Bible too literally.
"To me that's what god taught me to be about," he said. "I'm not telling people to handle snakes."
Hamblin said he agreed to be on the National Geographic special to erase some of the misunderstanding and mistrust of his type of ministry. He denied that his church is a cult, saying they are Christian "just like any other Christian," and banning snake handling is a form of religious persecution.
"I'm not asking anyone to agree with me or believe like me," he said. "I've never told anybody that they need to take up serpents to go to heaven, to be a Christian."
Coots says his flock lives by a stricter moral code than most -- no drugs, no alcohol, women don't cut their hair or wear pants -- and if their way of life and the way they choose to worship sets them apart, then so be it.
While it's unclear whether Coots will face prosecution in Kentucky, the Tennessee District Attorney General said she plans to prosecute Hamblin, even though the pastor sees it as religious persecution, because much of the fallout from the case has prompted genuine concern for public safety.
"We feel like we're trying to enforce the law? just trying to keep people safe and make sure the law is being followed," Phillips-Jones said.
Hamblin, on the other hand, said he plans to keep handling snakes.
"As long as there's breath in my body, I'm taking up serpents," he said. "I've come too far. I can't back down on it... I've seen too many miracles happen in churches."
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