A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Snake (Not So) Charmer

By Meghan Lalonde

Today’s Wall Street Journal features a nice little piece by one Jamie Coots, “pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name.”  The piece goes through many reasons why Mr. Coots believes his freedom of religion is being denied.

In fact, there’s just one reason: Poisonous snakes.

Mr. Coots claims that snake handling is an integral part of his religion based on two passages in the New Testament: Mark 16:18 (“they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them”) and Luke 10:19 (“Behold, I have given you power over serpents and scorpions…and nothing will injure you.”)

We have no problem with his worshipping the Lord any way he wants, but bringing snakes into the picture makes for a completely different story. And once constitutional rights violations are alleged, that’s where we step in.

LASIS enjoys responding to legal misunderstandings in the press.  And boy, do we have a slithering sucker of a story here. Oh, Mr. Coots. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways.

1)     You state that the services at your church require parishioners to “regularly handle venomous snakes” which, according to you, is “no less worthy of legal protection than the more common traditions observed by Jews, Muslims and mainstream Christians.”

Um…Yes it is.  Specifically, the venomous snake part.  I regret to inform you, Mr. Coots, that should you or any of your parishioners get bit by a snake, you will be hurt.  Not just physically, but financially. You can also probably expect to play a game of the great American indoor sport, the civil lawsuit, with any of your followers that do happen to get injured. Sir: Neither you, nor your snakes, are above the law.

2)     You sound mighty miffed that you were arrested for having 74 snakes on your property. Let’s say that more slowly, just so everyone understands: Se-ven-ty-four snakes. (This seems to be a magic number for animal hoarders; this woman was arrested for having the same number of cats).   And the thing about venomous snakes?  They slide around, surreptitiously and silently. Into things like drains and sewers. It is no small stretch of the imagination to think that these snakes could depart your property and visit someone else’s. Uninvited.  Just ask this Staten Island man who found a California Kingsnake… in his toilet.

3)     You do acknowledge that in every state except West Virginia, because “snakes can pose a health threat” (duh), handling them publicly is virtually prohibited. But does this stop our snake-loving friend? Hell no. You’ve crossed state lines with a bunch of snakes – from one state where they were purchased legally, through another where private ownership of snakes is illegal – and you sound pretty bent out of shape because you were arrested and put on probation for violating the law. Sorry, Mr. Coots. Can’t fight this one for you.

4)     You say you want your parishioners to have equal rights with followers of other religions, like Judaism and other forms of Christianity. Here’s where your whole argument really goes to hell in a hand basket.

a)     He points out that Jews fast each year on Yom Kippur and Child Protective Services are not called in when parents deprive their children of food and water. (That’s because they don’t. Children and any adult in a weakened state don’t fast. If someone does fast, and needs food, he can eat. If somebody gets bit by a venomous stake, it’s not nearly as easy to rectify the situation).

b)     You point out that Christian Scientists can refuse medical treatment even if that decision endangers their lives. Perhaps if you had just one snake at home, and worshipped there, you wouldn’t keep getting arrested. Christian Scientists don’t endanger anyone’s lives but their own, at their own choosing. And, they are not allowed to refuse medical treatment for children.  In your piece, you ask plaintively, “shouldn’t my congregants have the right to handle snakes, even if the behavior is risky?” That would be a resounding no, Mr. Coots.

c)     And then there’s the good old wine that Catholics get at mass. Really, Mr. Coots? You think that the little cup of wine the Catholics get at mass is as much of a concern to public health as your 74 snakes?  Really?

5)     Call us cynical, but we think your  real bone of contention is with the reason you reserved for last, and here we’ll quote you verbatim:

When President Obama declared his support for the construction of a mosque and Islamic community center near Ground Zero in 2010, he framed the argument as a defense of “the principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government.”

Though you claim this to have been a “laudable” statement by Mr. Obama, we suspect you don’t really think it is.  We think that you can’t believe that you, a true-blue red-blooded Appalachian-American, is not permitted to worship freely while (brown) foreigners are protected by the president.  Yes, we admit, we’re reading between the lines here.  But the point is that you shouldn’t be taking your treatment personally, Mr. Coots. We’re willing to bet that if Muslims were handling the venomous snakes in their mosques, the law would come down on them, too.

Readers: You can catch Mr. Coots practicing his religion on “Snake Salvation.” Which, come to think of it, is probably the reason for his piece in the first place – garnering attention for the show. Religion is all well and good in the kingdom of heaven, but here on earth, ratings rule supreme.

Comments

3 Comments »

3 Responses

  1. Dr. Arbuthnot says:

    Not only an acute analysis, but also stylistic soufle. Nice work.

  2. LASIS says:

    High praise indeed, Dr. Arbuthnot!

  3. Eric Roth says:

    And in today’s NYTimes…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/us/tennessee-pastor-disputes-wildlife-possession-charge-by-state.html

    (your legal analysis trumps the “experts” the reporter spoke to).

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