Grand jury decides not to indict snake-handling pastor
(WBIR - LaFollette) Campbell County pastor Andrew Hamblin will not face any criminal charges after a grand jury decided Wednesday not to indict him.
"I feel relieved that this is over and that's where I want it to stay," said Hamblin.
In November, Pastor Hamblin was cited for having animal dangerous to humans after state wildlife agents seized some 50 venomous snakes, including copperheads and rattlesnakes, from Tabernacle Church of God. Pastor Hamblin said his congregation uses the poisonous snakes as a part of their religious service.
Following the seizure of the snakes, parishioners and many others rallied around the pastor and called for the snakes to be returned to the church.
"It was a little bit a part of the snakes, but it was a way of us to worship the way we wanted to," said church member Christopher Larue.
Jeremey Henegar, another church member, agrees.
"To me it violated my right as an American to have my freedom of religion. It shouldn't matter to people if the Lord moves on me and I feel like I need to take up a six-foot rattlesnake. I should have that God-given right," he said.
Although the grand jury did not indict Pastor Hamblin, the Campbell County pastor said his church will not get the snakes back.
"They considered the snakes as contraband, and rightly so. We're not worried about that. We just move on and go back to normal. That's what we prayed for, that's what we asked God for, and that's what God done for us," explained Hamblin.
Despite wildlife agents seizing the poisonous snakes, Pastor Hamblin said venomous snakes have been present at every Tabernacle Church of God religious service. Pastor Hamblin also said his congregation plans to continue practicing their religion with poisonous snakes present. The church's next service will be Friday, January 10 at 7:30 p.m.
TWRA took the seized snakes to the Knoxville Zoo for care. Knoxville Zoo's herpetologist, Michael Ogle, released the following statement regarding the current status of the snakes brought to the zoo:
"Out of the 53 snakes that were brought to Knoxville Zoo by TWRA, 32 have died due to poor body condition caused by anorexia that was a result of severe parasite infestation and overall stress caused by being housed in quarters that were too small.
The majority of the surviving 21 snakes are in fair to good condition, but have also been exposed to the same pathogens and are at high risk of being infected due to the unnaturally overcrowded environment they were being kept in prior to their arrival at Knoxville Zoo.
Unfortunately, there is no successful treatment for these pathogens, which could be fatal for any other snakes, captive or wild, that were exposed to them. Due to the risk these snakes pose, there is no way they could safely become part of a captive conservation program or be released elsewhere. We are currently assessing the options available to us with our veterinarians."