Lawmakers may look at snake handlers

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Lawmakers may look at snake handlers

Post  Admin on Sun Jun 03, 2012 3:08 am

Another fatal bite by a rattlesnake in a West Virginia church ritual has led Senate President Jeffrey Kessler to call for the Legislature to outlaw the practice of handling venomous serpents in worship services.

But some others serving in the Legislature feel this would intrude on one’s constitutional guarantee to practice religion without government interference.

Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford, pastor of the Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, recently succumbed to a fatal bite by a timber rattler in a service at Panther State Forest.

Snake handlers are nothing new to the southern Appalachian hollows, and many have died over the years while handling reptiles, based on their interpretation of one of the four gospels, specifically Mark 16:17-18, which states:

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues: they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

In Kessler’s estimation, there is no doubt the Legislature should consider outlawing the “unregulated use of poisonous, dangerous and wild animals in any public venue, including a place of worship.”

“As this unfortunate preacher tragically discovered, he was playing ‘Russian Roulette’ with an extremely venomous reptile,” the Senate president said.

“The snake was inevitably going to attack, injure or kill him and perhaps other individuals who may have unwittingly been in attendance at the purported service.”

Kessler, D-Marshall, suggested it proves that the Legislature needs to take a second look at the exotic animals bill that would have regulated the ownership of dangerous members of the Wild Kingdom.

Some of his colleagues at the Capitol don’t share Kessler’s views on barring snake handling in a church venue.

“I don’t believe so,” House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said in an informal poll by The Register-Herald.

“The government can, and should, only go so far in protecting people from themselves. You would think at some point common sense and prudence would prevail.”

Delegate Rick Snuffer, R-Raleigh, himself an ordained minister and former pastor, says the practice of using snakes as a proof of faith is based on “a misunderstanding” of Jesus’ words in the gospel of Mark.

“Jesus was talking about the type of situation when the Apostle Paul accidentally encountered a snake when he was bitten by the viper in Acts 28:1-6,” the delegate said.

“I believe people who practice snake handling as part of their worship are sincere; they are just sincerely wrong in their interpretation of this (Mark) passage. I believe the Bible literally, but each Scripture must be interpreted in light of other Scriptures. It’s true the Bible says God will give His angels charge over us so we won’t dash our foot against a stone, but just like Jesus told Satan, it would have been ‘tempting God’ for Him to have jumped from the roof of the temple and expect the angels to catch Him.”

Unless it is done for protecting snakes or making it unlawful to own, keep or capture poisonous snakes, Snuffer says the Legislature has no business attempting to regulate a religious practice.

“That’s not their place,” he said.

“I’d rather see us pass more legislation to protect the unborn, infirm or our seniors than to regulate religious beliefs of adults.”

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, readily recognized the first Amendment protection of religion, cautioned that any effort to deal with snakes in worship would put the Legislature on “a slippery slope.”

“I strongly support the fundamental principle of freedom of religious expression and would oppose legislation that would encroach upon this bedrock standard,” said Laird, a former, four-term sheriff in Fayette.

A number of states have outlawed the practice, among them Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, although miscreants are seldom prosecuted.

If a bill is properly drafted, Laird said he could support an expansion of the wanton endangerment laws that permits some legal action if the use of snakes amounted to “a reckless disregard” for the safety of others.

“Such an expression of our wanton endangerment laws could allow for the review of the particular facts of any incident on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the safety of children or others who may not seek to voluntarily participate in the handling of snakes, based on their religious values and beliefs,” the senator said.

“However, in my opinion, in no way should any such law have as its specific, underlying intent or purpose any restrictions on the free exercise of religious expressions or beliefs.”

Delegate Virginia Mahan, D-Summers, suggested that any such bill outlawing the use of venomous snakes in worship would be futile.

“Even if lawmakers attempted to halt this practice, it would not work,” she said.

“There is no enforcement mechanism. And even though a majority of West Virginians would like to see this end and do not agree with snake handling, to the practitioners, it is an historic and traditional religious exercise. That brings in constitutional issues that cannot be superseded by a state legislature.”

A hands-off approach by the Legislature likewise was advocated by Delegate Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming.

“I believe government should leave religion and religious practices alone as much as possible,” he said.

“As long as someone is doing this by their own choice, not being forced to participate, then government should stay out of it.”

Former state Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette, is no stranger to the practice, harking back to his days as a news anchor at WOAY-TV in Oak Hill. He once photographed a snake handling service back in the 1960s, in what he termed “a funny and daring story.”

If he were in the Senate today and an anti-snake handling bill were on the calendar, he adds, “I would vote to leave it as it is.”

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