Snake Handlers and the Law

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . ."

United States Constitution, Amendment I

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18

Is Snake-Handling Legal?

Really, there are three parts to this question, just as there are three branches to our government:

More important than this, though, is the question of whether we have a government that preserves our freedom to decide what is right for us or whether we have a government that decides what's right for us and forces that decision on us.

You might not be a snake handler, and you might think snake handlers are misinformed nutcases, but the amount of freedom you have to believe and to practice as you see fit is directly related to the amount of freedom you have in all other areas of your life. The government that can tell you your religion is too dangerous for you to practice it is the same government that can say your smoking, drinking, or dietary practices are too dangerous for you. Once the government is able to dictate to those living on the fringes of society, it's not long before the government begins dictating to those more and more in the mainstream. Today it's the snake handlers, tomorrow it's the Episcopalians.

Now, let's look at the legislative, judicial, and executive aspects of snake handling legality.

Legislative Action

The State Code in Tennessee, section 39-17-101, makes it an offense "for a person to display, exhibit, handle, or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such manner as to endanger the life or health of any person." It doesn’t mention religious gatherings; a tourist-trap snake show along the interstate could just as well violate this statute.

The Revised Statutes of Kentucky go a bit further. In Title XL, Chapter 437, a section labeled "Offenses against Public Peace--Conspiricies," section 437.060 specifically outlaws religious snake handling. The section states: "Any person who displays, handles or uses any kind of reptile in connection with any religious service or gathering shall be fined not less than fifty dollars ($50.00) nor more than one hundred dollars ($100). "

You'll note that the Kentucky statute is a more direct attack on religious snake handling than the Tennessee statute. In Tennessee, a person could exhibit a poisonous snake in public if he took precautions against endangering people's life or health. In Kentucky, the tourist-trap snake showman would face no criminal penalty even if he didn't take precautions, but the preacher would be liable for criminal charges even if he passed around non-poisonous snakes. From a direct reading of the Kentucky statute, a mainline preacher who displayed a frog during his sermon would be facing a fine.

About 50 years ago in Alabama, Act No. 45, General and Local Acts 1950 (effective October 31, 1950) stated: "Section 1. Any person who displays, handles, exhibits, or uses any poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such a manner as to endanger the life or health of another shall be guilty of a felony, and upon conviction shall be imprisoned for a term to be fixed by the court of not less than one, nor more than five years." In 1953, the penalty was reduced to a misdemeanor, with a $50 to $150 fine or up to six months in jail. Neither of these acts remain on the books today. Instead, snake handlers can be prosecuted under the menace or reckless endangerment laws: Section 13A-6-23, Menacing, says, "(a) A person commits the crime of menacing if, by physical action, he intentionally places or attempts to place another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury. (b) Menacing is a Class B misdemeanor." Section 13A-6-24, Reckless endangerment, says, "(a) A person commits the crime of reckless endangerment if he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person. (b) Reckless endangerment is a Class A misdemeanor." The constitutionality of applying these laws to snake handling was decided in the case of Hill v. State, which is discussed below.

There are no statutes in West Virginia prohibiting snake handling, either in a religious meeting or generally.

As time permits, information on more states will be added. Eventually there will be separate links to each state in which snake handling has been a legal issue.

Court Action

Regardless of whether or not a state legislature has specifically enacted a statute outlawing snake handling, the courts can still find handlers liable under the common law. If a defendant is told by the court to refrain from snake handling, he can appeal to higher courts in his state or, eventually, to the United States Supreme Court. The opinions of these higher courts are published, so we can consider the reasoning of the court in deciding whether a person has a right to handle snakes or not.

A case in the Tennessee state supreme court in 1975, Swann v. Pack , (527 S.W.2d 99), concerned a Holiness Church in which snake handling occurred. The court examined the matter from the common law point of view, that is, they weren't enforcing any particular statute but were actually deciding if the court had justification to shut down Rev. Pack's church. In sending the case back to the lower court, the supreme court instructed the lower court judge to: "enter an injunction perpetually enjoining and restraining all parties respondent from handling, displaying or exhibiting dangerous and poisonous snakes or from consuming strychnine or any other poisonous substances, within the confines of the State of Tennessee."

Go here to read a scholarly analysis of the Swann case. The last paragraph of the article is particularly interesting; it says, in part: "Swann is a far-reaching decision. Some of the foreseeable possibilities include challenges to state statutes requiring the wearing of motorcycle helmets, inquiries into culpability for death of terminally ill patients, and efforts to regulate hazardous sports such as hang-gliding."

The church members appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court declined to review the case. The practical result of this was that Rev. Pack and his congregation were prohibited from handling snakes. As a general rule, this would stand as precedent for any other religious snake handlers in Tennessee, but it all depends on the local authorities.

The Kentucky statute was challenged in Lawson v. Commonwealth, (164 S.W.2d 972 (1942)). Tom Lawson and others were convicted of displaying and handling snakes during a religious meeting, and they appealed the conviction.

The Kentucky court quoted from an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision, Jones v. City of Opelika, (62 S.Ct. 1231, 1237, 86 L.Ed. 1691): "Courts, no more than Constitutions, can intrude into the consciences of men or compel them to believe contrary to their faith or think contrary to their convictions, but courts are competent to adjudge the acts men do under color of a constitutional right, such as that of freedom of speech or of the press or the free exercise of religion and to determine whether the claimed right is limited by other recognized powers, equally precious to mankind. So the mind and spirit of man remain forever free, while his actions rest subject to necessary accommodation to the competing needs of his fellows."

Using this argument of the importance of the state's police power in maintaining the peace, the Kentucky court upheld the statute, essentially saying that you could believe whatever you wanted, but as soon as you tried to put your beliefs into practice, the state could stop you. This was decided in 1942, and the decision has not since been overturned.

In Alabama, Luther Hill was convicted in DeKalb County Court of displaying, handling or exhibiting a poisonous snake in a manner endangering the life and health of another. He appealed to the Court of Appeals, which held, on January 17, 1956, that the statute did not violate the federal or state constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion (38 Ala.App. 404). Mr. Hill appealed further, but on February 7, 1956, the state surpreme court declined to reconsider the case (88 So.2d 887). The Alabama court, using the prosecution's account of the incident, acknowledged that only "believers" were invited to handle the snake, and others were asked to remain behind the front row of seats during the service. The court referred favorably to the case of Frolickstein v. Mayor of Mobile (40 Ala. 725), in which a Jewish gentleman who rested on Saturday and conducted business on Sunday was convicted of violating a local ordinance prohibiting Sunday sales. Once again, you're free to believe whatever you want, but you're not free to act on your beliefs. And once again, the Hill v. State decision has not been overturned.

West Virginia, with no statute prohibiting snake handling, also has not had any court cases regarding snake handling. Remember, though, that only cases that have been appealed to a higher court are recorded. It is possible that handlers in West Virginia have been prosecuted under public nuisance laws and didn't choose to appeal.

Law Enforcement Action

This is where the real ambiguity enters. Many of the actions of law enforcement agencies are based more on public relations than on the law. If there’s nothing else for them to do, or if somebody makes a stink about it, there’s every chance that the local police will head for the nearest Holiness Church to bust up the snake handling services.

Advice to Snake Handlers

Please understand that I am not a lawyer and am not setting myself forth as one giving specific legal advice to any particular person. If you want to handle snakes in your jurisdiction and are concerned about the legal ramifications, please consult a competent, licensed attorney.

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