Last week, Campbell County’s grand jury failed to return an indictment against serpent-handling pastor Andrew Hamblin.
He was accused of possessing dangerous wildlife. More specifically, prosecutors claim he harbored at least 50 venomous snakes in a small room at Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette. The snakes were confiscated by game wardens in November, about the same time our community became largely divided into two camps: those who staunchly supported the preacher-turned-reality-star’s right to freely exercise his religion, and those who believed the snakes presented a clear and present danger to worshippers and others who came in contact with them.
Of course there were others who sided solely with the snakes — more than half of which have already died after being retained by Knoxville Zoo officials.
Hundreds in the community opined about the case by writing letters, emailing or posting on our social media networks. A few even cancelled their subscriptions to the Press because they were so enraged by coverage of the ordeal.
In case you failed to follow the headlines in the LaFollette Press, Wall Street Journal, New York Times or many of the nation’s major TV networks, here’s an abbreviated dose of what you missed.
1) Local snake-handling pastor lands a 16-series show on a cable network that provides a platform for his beliefs, which he says are directed by the bible. In the series, he’s shown handling, hunting, transporting and harboring the venomous reptiles.
2) The community reacts to the show — many come out in support of Hamblin’s right to handle snakes; others call it “dangerous and sinful.”
3) Hamblin openly challenges law enforcement and public officials to deny his right to house and handle snakes.
4) Game wardens raid Hamblin’s church and confiscate at least 50 of the congregation’s poisonous serpents.
5) A legal battle ensues.
It all leads us to last week, where in a rare move, Hamblin testified on his own behalf during a 32-minute hearing before the grand jury.
They returned a “no true bill” against Hamblin, which means jurors couldn’t find merit in further prosecuting the case.
Hamblin is obviously a charmer of snakes and his peers, as he convinced the 12-member panel and foreperson to dismiss any action at that time.
Just how the jury reached that verdict will likely never be known — jurors are forbidden to speak about their decision.
But the facts of the Hamblin case seem obvious to us, and we believe justice was not served last week.
While many convolute the snake-possession charges with an attack against Hamblin’s religious freedom, jurors simply had the responsibility of considering the charge, examining the evidence and then conferring a ruling based on the laws of our land.
In this case, the task was this: Was there reasonable grounds establish that Hamblin possessed snakes?
The unequivocal answer is “yes.”
No rational person can disagree with that.
But apparently the jury was less rational.
Sure, grand jurors may rely on their gut intuitions, consider hearsay and a plethora of litmus tests to decide what they think is best in the case.
We can only infer the jury was swayed by Hamblin’s charisma and down-home demeanor — or they think there are worse culprits to go after in Campbell County than a snake-handling preacher.
Don’t get us wrong.
We uphold that religion is fundamentally protected by the Constitution. But the case could’ve — and should’ve — ended in a reasonable compromise.
Here’s what we think:
Hamblin should’ve been indicted for possessing snakes, which is a violation of law. He later should’ve pleaded “no contest.”
The courts should’ve fined him $1, as a symbolic gesture that violations of the law won’t be tolerated — but neither will attacks on religion.
While it would be a mark on his criminal record, it wouldn’t necessarily stop him from choosing to possess or handle snakes in the future — but his decision to do so could also result in future consequences.
Until then, Hamblin and his supporters should lobby Tennessee lawmakers to relax rules about wildlife possession. Opponents should lodge and equally aggressive campaign.
This solution may not be God’s will, the people’s will, nor the court’s will — but that’s just how we see it at the LaFollette Press.