Can the handling of rattlesnakes by a religious group be restricted by the government?
- AdamoLv 51 decade agoFavorite Answer
Regardless of whether or not a state legislature has specifically enacted a statute outlawing snake handling, the courts can still find handlers liable under the common law. If a defendant is told by the court to refrain from snake handling, he can appeal to higher courts in his state or, eventually, to the United States Supreme Court. The opinions of these higher courts are published, so we can consider the reasoning of the court in deciding whether a person has a right to handle snakes or not.
A case in the Tennessee state supreme court in 1975, Swann v. Pack , (527 S.W.2d 99), concerned a Holiness Church in which snake handling occurred. The court examined the matter from the common law point of view, that is, they weren't enforcing any particular statute but were actually deciding if the court had justification to shut down Rev. Pack's church. In sending the case back to the lower court, the supreme court instructed the lower court judge to: "enter an injunction perpetually enjoining and restraining all parties respondent from handling, displaying or exhibiting dangerous and poisonous snakes or from consuming strychnine or any other poisonous substances, within the confines of the State of Tennessee."
Go here to read a scholarly analysis of the Swann case. The last paragraph of the article is particularly interesting; it says, in part: "Swann is a far-reaching decision. Some of the foreseeable possibilities include challenges to state statutes requiring the wearing of motorcycle helmets, inquiries into culpability for death of terminally ill patients, and efforts to regulate hazardous sports such as hang-gliding."
The church members appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court declined to review the case. The practical result of this was that Rev. Pack and his congregation were prohibited from handling snakes. As a general rule, this would stand as precedent for any other religious snake handlers in Tennessee, but it all depends on the local authorities.
The Kentucky statute was challenged in Lawson v. Commonwealth, (164 S.W.2d 972 (1942)). Tom Lawson and others were convicted of displaying and handling snakes during a religious meeting, and they appealed the conviction.
The Kentucky court quoted from an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision, Jones v. City of Opelika, (62 S.Ct. 1231, 1237, 86 L.Ed. 1691): "Courts, no more than Constitutions, can intrude into the consciences of men or compel them to believe contrary to their faith or think contrary to their convictions, but courts are competent to adjudge the acts men do under color of a constitutional right, such as that of freedom of speech or of the press or the free exercise of religion and to determine whether the claimed right is limited by other recognized powers, equally precious to mankind. So the mind and spirit of man remain forever free, while his actions rest subject to necessary accommodation to the competing needs of his fellows."
Using this argument of the importance of the state's police power in maintaining the peace, the Kentucky court upheld the statute, essentially saying that you could believe whatever you wanted, but as soon as you tried to put your beliefs into practice, the state could stop you. This was decided in 1942, and the decision has not since been overturned.
In Alabama, Luther Hill was convicted in DeKalb County Court of displaying, handling or exhibiting a poisonous snake in a manner endangering the life and health of another. He appealed to the Court of Appeals, which held, on January 17, 1956, that the statute did not violate the federal or state constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion (38 Ala.App. 404). Mr. Hill appealed further, but on February 7, 1956, the state surpreme court declined to reconsider the case (88 So.2d 887). The Alabama court, using the prosecution's account of the incident, acknowledged that only "believers" were invited to handle the snake, and others were asked to remain behind the front row of seats during the service. The court referred favorably to the case of Frolickstein v. Mayor of Mobile (40 Ala. 725), in which a Jewish gentleman who rested on Saturday and conducted business on Sunday was convicted of violating a local ordinance prohibiting Sunday sales. Once again, you're free to believe whatever you want, but you're not free to act on your beliefs. And once again, the Hill v. State decision has not been overturned.
West Virginia, with no statute prohibiting snake handling, also has not had any court cases regarding snake handling. Remember, though, that only cases that have been appealed to a higher court are recorded. It is possible that handlers in West Virginia have been prosecuted under public nuisance laws and didn't choose to appeal.Source(s): http://yeltsin.tripod.com/law/law.htm
- sparshLv 43 years ago
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- grump56Lv 61 decade ago
If we have the right to abort a child then why tell us we can't die by snake bite?
- Anonymous1 decade ago
my main man!