More than 100 people packed a courthouse in Tennessee Friday to support Andrew Hamblin, who pleaded not guilty to 53 charges of possession of poisonous snakes.
While that may not be considered newsworthy, consider that Hamblin is one of several Pentecostal pastors who handle snakes in church services.
They believe that several verses at the end of the New Testament book of Mark (Mark 16:17-18) commands Christians to do so. On Nov. 7, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided his church in LaFollette, a small town just north of Knoxville.
They allegedly found 53 venomous snakes in a storage room at the Tabernacle Church of God, a church Hamblin has pastored for two years. They charged him with 53 counts of possession of class I wildlife, which includes poisonous snakes, and each count could mean a year in jail.
The Wall Street Journal reports that within a few hours of Hamblin posting photos of wildlife officials carting off his snakes, his Faecbook feed was jammed with hundreds of people promising prayers, financial support and legal help.
By Thursday night, Hamblin said he had gathered about 3,000 signatures from a petition drive at his church and online supporters. He said fellow clergymen signed the petition even though they differ with him on whether Scripture mandates serpent handling.
“This is my God-given right in the United States,” the 22-year-old said on the courthouse steps before the hearing. “If God moves on me to take up a serpent, I take up a serpent.”