Have you ever seen or heard of a snake in church? It may sound strange at first, but this isn’t an uncommon occurrence in some Christian fundamentalist churches tucked away in the rural Appalachia.
As I’m currently learning about civil liberties in my AP US Government class (shoutout to Mr. Coffey), an example of the intersection between civil liberties and public health was brought up about a tradition called “snake handling."
It is estimated that around 125 churches in the United States use “snake handling” as a demonstration of having the Holy Spirit within them; according to those who practice it, if they get bitten by the snake, they don’t have the true spirit within. If they are bitten, the congregation prays over them. If they die, that's God’s will.
For the past century, “snake handling” has been a concern for public health officials. In the past six years, there have been three recorded deaths in the US from snake bites during religious services (The Sun News). Although this is a tradition deeply rooted in religion, it does obviously interfere with public health. Knowing this, is it appropriate to try and limit these practices? After all, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Well, let’s look at what the US government has to say:
After the deaths of people to snake handling in church, many states and cities have created laws against “the handling of poisonous reptiles in such manner as to endanger the public health, safety, and welfare” (American Politics Today). These conflicting interests between public health and religious traditions resulted in a 1947 court cause in which members of a church in North Carolina were each fined $50 for handling a poisonous copperhead snake in a church service. This was appealed all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court where religious people argued that this was a violation of their freedom of religion. However, the court rejected this view, saying that “public safety is superior to religious practice” (American Politics Today). Although this is what the Court ruled, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people abide by it; still, some churches practice snake handling at their own risk.
What do you think? Should people be allowed to practice their religious traditions, even though it could cause the public harm? Or, is the US government correct in fining those who practice these traditions (even if some churches may get away with it)? Let us know in the comments!
Bianco, W. T., & Canon, D. T. (2016). American Politics Today. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.