Last month, Jamie Coots, the pastor of a snake-handling church in Kentucky featured in the reality show Snake Salvation, died from a snake bite that occurred during a worship service. (He refused medical treatment for the bite.) Michael Sean Winters considers the questions snake-handling raises about what religious liberty really means, connecting it to pending court cases over the ACA’s contraception mandate:
The law is a complicated thing. … I readily confess that my opposition to the mandate, based on the institutional integrity of our Catholic schools and hospitals, must wrestle with the institutional integrity of Pastor Coots’ church to believe the Bible commands snake-handling. The nettlesome of the issues, however, is itself a sign of moral seriousness. The morally serious person is not the zealot for whom all moral calculations are easy. The morally serious person is she who recognizes the difficulties, the qualifications, the nuances, as well as the moral law.
Peter Lawler hesitates to draw any grand lessons about religious liberty from the issue of snake-handling Christians:
When I teach constitutional law, I treat snake-handling as a gray area when it comes to religious liberty under our Constitution. The limit to that liberty is the rights of others, beginning with the right to self-preservation.
The faith of the snake handler encourages behavior which is needlessly personally destructive and so a crazy violation of the law of nature according to our founding philosopher John Locke. A church with roused up men handling snakes could hardly be called a safe space. But handling is, after all, voluntarily chosen and (at least almost always) hurts no one but the handler himself. So some states are permissive—and others repressive—when it comes to snaking handling as a religious practice.
I’m not sure what we can learn about [snake] handling that can illuminate our present controversies over religious liberty. Well, maybe that’s the point. Our historical answer has been to be reluctant to apply high principle to tough cases, but to err on the side of accommodating the practice of good people whose lives are completed by faith. The Yoder decision that exempted the Amish from valid secular policy concerning compulsory education neglected principle on behalf of prudence. What’s the harm? And, of course, there’s plenty of good in giving the Amish the space they need to live their faith as they understand it. The Amish are in many ways are models of responsible, self-reliant American life.
The snake handlers could never win a similar victory in our courts. They’re much less fashionable. Who’s less fashionable, in fact? But can’t we say that the snake-handling churches do more good than harm for particular persons? Lives really are transformed in the direction of responsible citizenship by genuine faith. It’s easier, in some ways, to side with the snake handlers than the Amish. After all, they seem to require nothing of their believers in or outside of church but faith, and they do nothing that affects the rights of those who don’t share their belief. For me, our great history of religious accommodation means erring on the side of our singular diversity of churches as organized bodies of thought and action. So my state of Georgia is correct in letting the church be, without making a big deal out of it.
(Video: Clip from Snake Salvation)