'Snake Salvation' Pastor Exonerated by Tenn. Grand Jury

A reality TV show preacher known for his snake-handling during worship services has been exonerated by a grand jury in Tennessee.

Andrew Hamblin, pastor at Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette was exonerated by a grand jury in Campbell County on Wednesday, reported local media.

"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," said Nashville's News Channel 5.

Star of the National Geographic reality program "Snake Salvation," Hamblin was charged in November with violating Tennessee's ban on snake-handling.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) officers raided Hamblin's church and found more than 50 poisonous snakes, both exotic and native to Campbell County.

Later in November, Hamblin was brought before a Campbell County court under the charge of Class 1 Wildlife, where he issued a plea of not guilty.

Last month, a judge heard Hamblin and the prosecution make arguments and decided to send the case to a grand jury.

Hamblin has argued that his snake-handling practice is part of his religious practice and he has the freedom to perform such acts during worship.

Pastors like Hamblin argue that their practices are in line with what the Bible says, as Mark 16: 17-18 reads, "And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."

Others, like S. Michael Houdmann of gotquestions.org, take issue with the interpretation of the passage by Hamblin and others.

"Mark 16:17-18 does not contain any imperatives. It does not say, 'Go out and handle snakes.' It says, 'They will pick up snakes with their hands.' It is describing something that will occur, not commanding that something should occur," wrote Houdmann.

"Just as Jesus refused to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, even though God would send angels to protect Jesus, so are we to not intentionally put ourselves in situations that require God's miraculous intervention."

On its Facebook group, Tabernacle Church of God hailed the decision as "great news" and one commenter remarked that "Religious freedom takes the day."