(AP) — An East Tennessee grand jury has cleared a pastor who has appeared on a reality television show about snake handling in church of possessing venomous snakes.
Campbell County pastor Andrew Hamblin, 22, of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette was cited Nov. 7 and pleaded not guilty. But a grand jury on Wednesday, January 8, exonerated the 22-year-old pastor.
Prosecutor Lori Phillips Jones said officials didn’t see the matter as a religious freedom case, but public safety. She said she respects the grand jury’s decision. Hamblin had been charged with having illegal wildlife possession of dozens of snakes in his church. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers raided Hamblin’s church and confiscated 53 venomous snakes in November 2013.
Hamblin has appeared on the National Geographic show “Snake Salvation,” that highlighted Pentecostals in the Southeast who handle serpents as part of their worship services.
Hamblin has embraced the publicity after the TV show and his arrest, allowing journalists into his services and rallying for religious freedom on the courthouse steps. He says that snake-handling — a practice based on Scripture in the 16th chapter of Mark — should be brought out of the shadows.
“It’s a major step,” Hamblin said. “Today was a major victory, not only for serpent-handling people, but for Christians everywhere.”