(WBIR) A serpent-handling pastor pleaded 'not guilty' Friday to charges he's facing for having dozens of venomous reptiles inside his church.
In a standing room only courtroom, Pastor Andrew Hamblin of LaFollette's Tabernacle Church of God took the stand to defend his church's religious practices. The Campbell County church is known for handling venomous snakes during their services.
"That is my God given right in the United States; if God moves on me to take up a serpent, I can take up a serpent," said Hamblin to a large crowd on the courthouse's steps before his arraignment.
Last week, TWRA seized the church's some 50 snakes and cited the pastor for possessing dangerous animals. Now, many people are voicing their support for the pastor.
"I'm overwhelmed. I mean it has just been , it's been a wonderful thing to have all these people," said Hamblin. "It's just wonderful to have these people here, and to know, not only members of my church back me, but also that my community backs me, and most of all, my nation backs me, and that means the world to me."
After his arraignment, Hamblin walked across the street to his lawyer's office before addressing the media. His lawyer, Michael Hatmaker, said they want the charges dismissed.
"I don't know if it's probable or not. I don't know," said Hatmaker.
Even though his lawyer was unsure, Hamblin's supporters showed up in full force, wearing red.
"A lot of people say it's for anger. But it's symbolizing the blood," said Christopher LaRue, who goes to Hamblin's church and has handled snakes during services. "You don't have to handle snakes to go to heaven. You got to get the blood applied, that's how you get saved."
Hamblin said even though he's not allowed to have the snakes, they have been handled at every service since the incident, including Friday night after the arraignment.
Hamblin defended his practices as safe, and said he understood TWRA's position, but wants to make a compromise by being able to have five of each snakes, similar to the permit system in Kentucky.
"I'm willing to work out anything," said Hamblin. "But as far as plea deals and things like that, I feel like that would be me taking down on the word of God and stepping down on how we believe. "
When asked about criticism and accusations of being a publicity hound, Hamblin said fame was not his goal.
"I did not foresee myself as being some kind of figure in the religious rights movement, but apparently that was God's plan and here I am today," said Hamblin.
Hamblin said about 3,000 people signed handwritten and online petitions in support of dropping charges against him.
One supporter, a close friend and snake handling pastor in Kentucky, traveled to Campbell County, as well.
"I've called Andrew a son since he started coming around. I've seen him take up serpents for the first time in my church," said Jamie Coots, of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky.
Coots said in Kentucky, he has a permit to handle snakes privately, but handling at a church is illegal in every state except West Virginia.
"I hope at the least that they can make a law that he can keep five of each snake, which is the law in Kentucky," said Coots. "It all has to start somewhere."
A preliminary hearing was scheduled for December 17th.
(WBIR - LaFollette) Pastor Andrew Hamblin is fighting to bring back the snakes usually used during services at Tabernacle Church of God.
Friday, Pastor Hamblin is scheduled to appear before a judge at the Campbell County Courthouse, after he was cited for possession of Class 1 Wildlife (wildlife inherently dangerous to humans).
Last week, TWRA seized some 50 illegal snakes being housed inside the church. Those poisonous snakes are now being cared for at the Knoxville Zoo.
Since the seizure, Pastor Hamblin said he's been getting an outpouring of support.
"I was ready to receive some of the worst comments, worst messages. I've only two emails and they weren't really bad. They were just people saying, 'We don't understand you. We don't agree with you,' and stuff like that," he said.
Pastor Hamblin said nearly 500 people have signed a petition for the serpent-handling pastor and his congregation to get the snakes back.
The church has not let the snake seizure stop them from practicing their religious beliefs. Pastor Hamblin admitted snakes have been present at all services since the confiscation.
"The past two services since they confiscated everything there has been other people who brought serpents into the church. They brought them in, the Lord blessed, and they were handled here," he said.
After Friday's hearing, Tabernacle Church of God is hoping the church will soon have their own snakes back for their services. Pastor Hamblin said he's even open to a compromise.
"If they were to sum up some kind of a religious exemption towards me and my church to keep 10 native species, five copperheads and five rattlesnakes, I'm willing to do that," he said.
Pastor Hamblin said he plans to address the public outside the Campbell County Courthouse Friday at 8:30 a.m. He's asking supporters to wear the color red.