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SNAKE CITATION

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Charge against preacher may spark religious war with serpent-handling congregation

By Beth Braden

UPDATED 1:17 p.m. FRIDAY: This is video footage of Pastor Andrew Hamblin's remarks to the media following his initial not-guilty plea in Campbell County General Sessions Court.

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UPDATED 10:50 a.m. FRIDAY: JACKSBORO — Andrew Hamblin pleaded not guilty to possession of Class-I wildlife and a preliminary hearing was set for Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. That preliminary hearing is expected to include details of the evidence against him.

Following the initial plea, Hamblin left the courthouse with attorney Mike Hatmaker and the two went into Hatmaker's office. A short time later, Hamblin gave a statement to the media from the courthouse steps.

The pastor said he was overwhelmed by the support and doesn't regret his role in reality series Snake Salvation - even though its footage could be used against him.

"I do not have a regret one in the world," he told reporters as his supporters gathered around. Some of them carried handmade signs that said "Mark 16 is as real as John 3:16."

Video footage of the 10-minute statement will be available for free on our website this afternoon.

UPDATE 9 a.m. FRIDAY: JACKSBORO—The main courtroom in the Campbell County Courthouse is packed this morning as serpent-handling preacher Andrew Hamblin is expected to make an appearance soon to plead to a citation for possessing 50 deadly snakes. 

Hamblin's supporters are dressed in red to show their unity for what they say is an infringement on the Tabernacle Church of God's religious freedoms. 

Hamblin preached for about 10 minutes on the courthouse grounds before his appearance, referencing biblical verses from Genesis. LaFollette Press crews say there appears to be extra security at the courthouse.   

This story will be updated. 

 

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LaFOLLETTE—Tabernacle Church of God Pastor Andrew Hamblin is preparing for the first of what could be many court appearances after officers from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided his church on Nov. 7 and seized more than 50 venomous snakes.

Hamblin is charged with one count of possession of Class-I wildlife — a misdemeanor punishable by up to nearly a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. His arraignment is set for 9 a.m. Friday in Campbell County General Session Court, where he is expected to plead not guilty, according to his private defense attorney Mike Hatmaker. 

Hamblin was at his home last Thursday morning when two TWRA officers knocked on the door to inquire if he had any deadly snakes there or at his church.

“Of course I couldn’t lie,” Hamblin said.

Hamblin then escorted the officers to his church where they spent more than an hour and eventually removed 50 serpents in six containers. Species included rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, copperheads and some non-native species, according to TWRA officials. The reptiles are being held at the Knoxville Zoo as evidence.

Hamblin was the only church member allowed inside the building during the seizure. 

As TWRA processed the snakes inside the church, members of the congregation began to gather outside. Elizabeth Hamblin, the pastor’s wife, fielded constant cell phone calls from people who presumably wanted updates on the situation. 

Her ringtone was set to  “My Salvation,” the opening theme song of the reality TV series that starred the Hamblins and ultimately could prove to be the catalyst for TWRA’s action. 

Hamblin, along with Kentucky preacher Jamie Coots, began filming “Snake Salvation” for the National Geographic Channel earlier this year. The 16-episode series aired on Tuesday nights throughout the fall and detailed the lives of snake-handling church members. 

The final episodes aired Oct. 22. 

After the raid, church members gathered at the Tabernacle’s altar to pray about the upcoming court appearance.

“We’re fixing to fill that courthouse up,” Hamblin told those gathered. “A man ought to fast and pray ‘til the 15th.”

But Hamblin reassured the crowd that church services would go on. 

On Friday night — eight minutes before worship service at the Tabernacle was set to begin — Hamblin’s “Snake Salvation” co-star “Big Cody” Wynn came in the side door of the church carrying audibly rattling and hissing snakes in two sacks. 

As service began, Hamblin held two of the serpents as worshippers at the church jumped to their feet and sang, “I’ve got the devil under my feet.” 

Many worshippers pulsated and gyrated, while others celebrated by clapping tambourines against their legs. Guitars and electric keyboards blared from the church’s praise band, set up on a small stage. 

“They might have took our snakes, but the Bible still reads: ‘They shall take up serpents,’” Hamblin told his congregation. “They may take our snakes, but they’ll never take the word of God.” 

The roughly 100-worshipper service became a call to arms for a congregation that feels as though they are being unfairly targeted. 

TWRA “crossed the line” when they walked into the church, according to Hamblin. He said the law will not keep him from living out his faith.

“They say you can’t keep wildlife like that,” Hamblin told his congregation. “Somebody makes meth over here in this trailer park!” 

The churchgoers again began to sing — this time, “You may not believe it, but it’s right anyhow.” 

Hamblin again promised on Sunday to fight for his beliefs.

“There’s supposed to be a wall between church and state. That wall was broken down, but praise God, I’m gonna build it back up Friday,” he said. 

 

Fallout

District Attorney Lori Phillips-Jones said Tuesday night more criminal charges could be filed since Hamblin openly defied law enforcement’s citation. Footage recorded by Hamblin’s National Geographic show could be used as evidence against him. 

In the days since the raid, social media has been ablaze with both an outpouring of support and cold criticism for the 23-year-old pastor, who appeared on national TV to bring attention to the practice of religious snake handling. 

For some, the show solidified belief in God and the power of prayer. In one episode, a snake bites co-star “Little Cody” Coots while the group hunted in a swamp. Though he became very ill, he survived. Coots’ grandfather, Greg, was bitten during a church service. He, too, appeared to make a full recovery.

Several LaFollette Press Facebook fans came to the defense of Hamblin and the show.

“I’m no snake handler — don’t want no part in it, but he really isn’t hurting anyone. He may be breaking the law, but so is a lot more folks. If you don’t like his show, don’t watch it, but don’t drag him [through] the dirt because you don’t agree with him,” posted Bec Christian on Facebook.

Others call the show a mockery of the law.

“What did they expect? It is against the law to have ANY wild animal in captivity. If you don't have any more sense [than] to broadcast you have wild, captured snakes on national TV, then you get what you deserve,” posted Terry McCullah on the Press’ Facebook.

One of the final episodes of the show depicts the Hamblins hiding a snake in their vehicle and dodging the attention of law enforcement as they make their way to a reptile convention in South Carolina.

 

Fighting Back

The congregation, however, sees the snake seizure as an attack on its religious freedom and is vowing to fight back with petitions, symbolic ribbons and calls to officials. Hamblin supporters plan to pack the courthouse for his arraignment. 

As of Wendesday, a Facebook page in support of the group has already gained 1,035 fans. 

“We are asking everyone to show your support by tying a red ribbon on your car and home. We are making them to show that we will fight for our rights as Christians, not just serpent handling but to let them know we stand for what is right,” one of the administrators posted on the page. 

Hamblin’s personal Facebook has met the 5,000-friend limit.

Hamblin has also spent time collecting signatures for a petition in support of his First Amendment rights, even setting up at his church for residents to come by and sign it there. 

Hamblin told his congregation that he isn’t afraid of the law.

“There ain’t a devil in hell can take away what I got,” he said. 

Hamblin’s fight to legalize snake handling began in July 2012 when he asked the Campbell County Commission to repeal a 1947 ban on snake handling. He hoped repealing the ban would pave the way for state legislature to give its blessing.

Instead, the county commission voted to leave the ban intact. 

Hamblin was not deterred.

“I’m not shocked,” Hamblin said last summer. “Just ‘cause they said ‘no’ don’t mean I’m gonna quit it. Come Friday night, there will still be snake boxes at the church with snakes in them.”

After that came the camera crews from National Geographic, as well as national media attention on the small sect of the Pentecostal church.

Hamblin even attempted to speak directly to the Gov. Bill Haslam by visiting a Haslam fundraiser at The Stables in LaFollette last week. Hamblin told his church he was treated like a “terrorist” when he tried to approach Haslam.

“It’s a shame when a preacher man can’t even talk to his own governor,” Hamblin said. 

State Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, said he was surprised to see Hamblin at the fundraiser and wondered how “someone on food stamps” could afford tickets to the $100-per-person event. 

“I’m not really sure how he got in,” Powers said.

Haslam’s security detail referred Hamblin to Powers, who said he had a long — but polite — conversation with the minister.

“He [Hamblin] just started talking about the whole First Amendment,” Powers said. “This is not about First Amendment rights. This is about endangerment. That’s why there’s a law on the books.”

Powers said he supports freedom of religion, but is not interested in helping repeal a ban on snake handling because of the public safety issue. 

Other law enforcement agencies agree — this is a public safety issue. 

"It is illegal to possess venomous snakes in the state of Tennessee,” said Phillips-Jones. “There are other offenses related to handling and possessing venomous snakes."

Other Class-I Wildlife includes monkeys, lions, elephants and bears — all animals deemed to be inherently dangerous to humans. 

Hamblin says that non-snake-handling members of his congregation, including children, are protected from any snakes handled. 

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