An East Tennessee pastor who handles snakes as part of his faith has been cited by TWRA, and his venomous snakes have been confiscated.
According to TWRA's Matt Cameron, wildlife officers went to Andrew Hamblin's home in LaFollette Thursday morning and asked him if he had any venomous snakes. Hamblin said he did, and they were at an undisclosed location.
When the officers asked him if the snakes were at his church, the Tabernacle Church of God, he said yes. Hamblin took the officers to the church where they seized about 50 of the reptiles, including rattlesnakes and copperheads and some non-native species.
"I'm not going to lie. They asked if they were at my house, I said no, but when they asked if they were at the church, I said yes," said Hamblin, who has been the pastor for nearly two years.
Hamblin was cited with possession of class I wildlife (wildlife inherently dangerous to humans). He has a court date scheduled for November 15 at 9 am in Campbell County. TWRA said he was cooperating with their investigation.
"It doesn't bother me that they took the snakes because I can always get more snakes. There can always be more snakes that can be found. And that don't deter me," said Hamblin. "What bothers me is that this is not a place of business. This is not a home. Had this been a home or a business, yes, raid it. But this is a church. This is a place of worship."
The snakes will be held at the Knoxville Zoo as evidence. TWRA said some of them were in poor condition, but Hamblin denied those claims.
"They were kept behind two locked doors that only I had the key to," said Hamblin. "I kept them well-fed, and there is a heater to keep them warm when it's cold."
Hamblin said he understands people disagree with his religion, but said the law should not stop him or church members from practicing.
"People are going to live and believe the way they live and believe. I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about their specific beliefs. And I don't expect anyone to change mine. The only thing I ask people is to say 'Yes, he has a right to religious freedom.'"
Campbell County District Attorney Lori Phillips-Jones stated, "Possession of a large number of venomous snakes is a significant public safety hazard. I truly appreciate TWRA's efforts to keep all our citizens safe."
Hamblin appeared on the National Geographic reality show "Snake Salvation." TWRA said the show confirmed for them that Hamblin had the snakes. They had also received several complaints from the public.
"They targeted my church no doubt because of the television show. No doubt because of what I do. A lot of these churches they hid away, they hide out. I don't have anything to hide," said Hamblin.
Church members said they were upset, and said they felt they were targeted unfairly.
"I hope that the state of Tennessee recognizes that this is our right to handle the snakes, it's our belief, and that they legalize it," said Machelle Tinch, a church member.
Tinch described the feeling of serpent handling as a 'tingling high' better than any drugs or alcohol could create, and said her life has changed since she started attending the church.
"In the bible it says they shall take up serpents. And I think that if you've got the power of God, the anointing of God, that you can pick up a snake, you can drink poison, you can handle fire, you can do anything if you have God," said Tinch.
"I believe in the power of God and that it'll let you heal to seek and it'll move and it'll cast out devils. It'll move in tongues, it'll move and take up serpents," said Hamblin. "But here I am I'm getting snakes took, I'm facing jail time, I'm facing being taken away from my wife, my children, I'm facing being pulled out of my church just simply because I went out in the woods and caught a rattlesnake and I brought it to a service because I believe the bible said they shall take up serpents."
10News asked Hamblin why the church didn't use legal, nonvenomous snakes.
"The point of it being a venomous snake is to show a nonbeliever, not of snakes being right, but of God's true power," said Hamblin.
He said while he obeys other laws, this law violates the law of God. Hamblin claimed despite the citation and upcoming court date, church services would still continue with serpent handling in the future.
"If I don't get the snakes that they came and took from me, one way or another there will be serpents here for the services, if we have to fly them in by an airplane, one way or another, we'll see serpents here at the service," said Hamblin.
Tennessee outlawed serpent handling in 1947 after five people died of snake bites in two years.
Hamblin said he was bit by a snake in 2010 while cleaning one, but said no one has been bitten in his church since he's been the pastor.
The snakes are now being cared for at the Knoxville Zoo.
"We'll care for them like we would any other animal that comes into the zoo. My background is herpetology. My background is snakes so I know about taking care of snakes. We'll house them the same. They'll get vet care as if they're a part of our collection. They'll have to remain separate from our collection however just from a disease transmission standpoint," said Phil Colclough, director of animal collections and conservation at Knoxville Zoo.