No matter how Christian the copperheads, or how religious the rattlesnakes, state laws still apply, a snake-handling Pentecostal pastor found out last month.
Pastor Jamie Coots, who handles poisonous snakes as part of his worship services at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro, Ky., is due in court in Knoxville, Tenn., on Feb. 25. He faces charges of transporting illegal reptiles and transporting snakes in improper containers. The charges stem from a pair of traffic stops in Knoxville on Jan. 31.
Coots claimed ignorance of the Tennessee law.
"I was under the impression you had 24 hours to transport through or in and out of Tennessee," Coots said.
Coots says he needs the five snakes police confiscated—three rattlesnakes and two copperheads, which he bought in Eastaboga, Ala. for $800 last month—for biblical reasons, citing a passage from Mark 16: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
"We literally believe they want us to take up snakes," Coots told The Associated Press. "We've been serpent handling for the past 20 or 21 years."
In addition to fighting a police citation, Coots plans to fight for the return of his scriptural serpents, along with the boxes he used to transport the venomous creatures.
Owning certain snakes in Kentucky is legal—within limits. The serpents must be a native species and a person can have no more than five of each variety. In this case, the timber rattlers and copperheads would have qualified under the law, said Mark Marraccini, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Coots had permits for multiple snakes—northern copperheads, southern copperheads, timber rattlers and cottonmouths—until 2012, when the licenses expired. Coots said he let them lapse after being laid off from his job as a surface coal miner.
The is not the first time Coots and his snakes have gotten in trouble with the law. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in 2008 charged Coots with trafficking in snakes. Coots lost his right to get a license for a year, but a family member applied for and received the permits for him.
The snakes are currently lodging at the Rainforest Adventure Zoo in Sevierville, Tenn.