A grand jury in Tennessee has exonerated Pastor Andrew Hamblin, the star of the National Geographic reality show "Snake Salvation," but wildlife officials say that doesn't mean he will get back the 53 snakes they seized from his church last November.
A grand jury may have decided not to indict Pastor Hamblin of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, but the snakes are illegal, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Matt Cameron tells the Knoxville News Sentinel. "So we can't return them."
Comparing the snakes with drugs, Cameron adds, "If they confiscated drugs from a drug dealer and he was exonerated, he wouldn't be getting his drugs back."
A grand jury in Campbell County on Wednesday exonerated Hamblin, who was charged in November with violating Tennessee's ban on snake-handling.
"Prosecutor Lori Phillips Jones said officials didn't see the matter as a religious freedom case but public safety. She said she respects the grand jury's decision," News Channel 5 reported.
The snakes were not healthy when official seized them, and many of them have died, according to Cameron. The reptiles that are still alive are being cared for at a Knoxville zoo.
In November, wildlife officials cited the pastor with 53 counts of violating the state's ban, after confiscating the reptiles, including rattlesnakes and copperheads, from his church. Each count carried a possible punishment of nearly a year in prison.
The pastor, however, pleaded not guilty, and argued that handling snakes is about his religious freedom. "That is my God given right in the United States; if God moves on me to take up a serpent, I can take up a serpent," Hamblin said at the time. "They came right into the house of God and just ripped them [snakes] away. That would be no different if they just came and ripped your Bible out of First Baptist."
In December, a judge decided to send the case to a grand jury, which chose not to indict him.
Pastor Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky., who serves as a mentor of sorts for Hamblin, came out in support of the Tabernacle Church pastor.
"I've called Andrew a son since he started coming around. I've seen him take up serpents for the first time in my church," Coots was earlier quoted as saying. "I hope at the least that they can make a law that he can keep five of each snake, which is the law in Kentucky. It all has to start somewhere."
The adherents of the 100-year-old practice, which is common among a sect of Pentecostal Christians that number about 1,000, believe they are instructed by Jesus Christ in Mark 16:15-18, specifically verses 17 and 18 in the King James Version, to pick up serpents.
The "Snake Salvation" show, which debuted in early September, has fascinated, repulsed and confused readers over the practice of serpent handling.