Pastor Andrew Hamblin, the star of the National Geographic reality show "Snake Salvation," appeared in a court in Tennessee on Friday, pleading not guilty to illegally keeping poisonous snakes, and citing freedom of religion. After the plea, he handled snakes at a service in his church.
"This ain't no longer just a fight for snake handling," The New York Times quoted Hamblin, pastor at the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., as saying before his arraignment on a misdemeanor wildlife possession charge. "This is a fight for freedom of religion."
On Nov. 7, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials cited Hamblin on one count carrying a possible punishment of a $2,500 fine and nearly a year in prison, after confiscating about 50 reptiles, including rattlesnakes and copperheads, from his church.
Serpent handling has been banned in Tennessee since 1947.
"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 told a large crowd of supporters wearing red on Friday on the steps of the Campbell County courtroom.
"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," WATE quoted him as saying.
"I'm overwhelmed. I mean it has just been, it's been a wonderful thing to have all these people," Hamblin added. "It's just wonderful to have these people here, and to know, not only members of my church back me, but also that my community backs me, and most of all, my nation backs me, and that means the world to me."
A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 17. Pastor's lawyer, Michael Hatmaker, wants the charges dismissed.
"I'm willing to work out anything," said Hamblin. "But as far as plea deals and things like that, I feel like that would be me taking down on the word of God and stepping down on how we believe."
Pastor Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky., who serves as a mentor of sorts for Pastor Hamblin, was also at the courtroom to show support.
"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 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."
Pastor Hamblin handled snakes at a church service hours after he appeared in the courtroom, according to WBIR.
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.
The Christian Post earlier spoke to Pastor Hamblin, and he suggested that if others who believe as he does came forward, their group "could be as mainstream as the Southern Baptists," which claims more than 15 million members.
"If I go to my service tonight and God moves on me and I mean the Holy Ghost anoints that place and you got people shouting, you got people getting saved, people getting healed, delivered, and God moves on me to pull out a four-and-a-half foot rattlesnake and it lays fangs into me, if I'm anointed by God, that snake is not going to harm me," Hamblin said. "I don't care if it bites me 20 times, there'll be no harm. When the anointing of God moves, there is no harm," he went on to say, and added it's a sign to the nonbeliever of God's power.