Snakebite proves fatal to minister

JONESVILLE, VA - A preacher who refused medical treatment after a rattlesnake bit him during the serpent-handling part of an Easter service has died, authorities said.

The Rev. Dwayne Long, 45, of Rose Hill was holding a rattlesnake when it bit him on the back of a finger, Lee County Sheriff Gary Parsons said. Parsons said the congregation prayed for Long, but no one sought medical treatment.

Long died Monday at his home. "We don't anticipate any charges at this time," Parsons said. "That's their belief." Long was pastor of a Pentecostal church where members interpret serpent-handling as a form of obedience to God.

Snake-handlers believe that when people die of a snakebite they receive during a church service, it was simply their time to go. Long leaves a wife, five children and two grandchildren.

Copyright April 15, 2004 Kingsport Publishing Corporation.

Should snake handlers be subject to prosecution?

Editorial, Kingsport Times-News April 19, 2004

"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." - Mark 16:17-18

Americans are justly proud of this nation's tradition of religious freedom and religious toleration. But are there circumstances where it would be permissible for the government to limit religious expression?

That question is sparked by an incident involving a local preacher who died as the result of an Easter church service that included snake handling. The Rev. Dwayne Long, 45, was holding a rattlesnake when it bit him on the back of a finger, said Lee County Sheriff Gary Parsons.

Parsons said the congregation prayed for the Rev. Long, but he refused medical treatment. Long was pastor of a Pentecostal church where members interpret Mark 16:17-18 literally, viewing serpent handling as a form of obedience to God.

The overwhelming majority of Christians view the passage in Mark symbolically. Indeed, Ecclesiastes 10:11 warns: "Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better" - an Old Testament pronouncement that would seem to discourage not only snake handling, but speaking in tongues.

Serpent handling may seem scripturally extreme, even unsound, but should its inherent danger make it unlawful?

Many state legislatures have long maintained that religious freedom does not extend to picking up venomous snakes.

In the decade between 1940 and 1950 six Southern states - Kentucky in 1940, Georgia in 1941, Tennessee in 1947, Virginia in 1947, North Carolina in 1949, and Alabama in 1950 - banned the practice of snake handling.

In each instance, state lawmakers based their legislation on the premise that the First Amendment right to the free practice of religion was superseded by the potential danger to non-participants.

In Alabama and Georgia the practice was ruled to be a felony while the other four states deemed it a misdemeanor. The logic for a felony charge was that if someone violated the law and a death occurred, capital punishment was a reasonable sentence. However, Alabama and Georgia later repealed their laws.

But there is ample reason to believe that these state laws are on a collision course with the Constitution and common sense.

While the law against snake handling may seem straightforward at first glance, enforcement is problematic.

In serpent handling churches, no one is required to handle the snakes and in most, no one younger than 18 is allowed to do so. Since minors are not compelled to handle the snakes, no case of endangerment can be made there.

As for adults engaged in an entirely voluntary activity, law enforcement officials and prosecutors would have to admit as a point of logic that if a person felt there was danger, he or she would simply leave the premises.

Thus, a law mandating that bystanders have to be in danger for an arrest to be made is effectively rendered useless.

Absent an aggrieved party, there is seldom, if ever, enough evidence to prosecute a snake handler. By definition, the handler is scarcely likely to report himself, nor would others be disposed to file a charge since they are in voluntary attendance at such observances.

There is, in short, little practical way to outlaw the practice of snake handling. In addition, it seems equally clear that any adult so charged could ultimately appeal to the First Amendment promise of freedom of religion as a protection from legal sanction.

In the final analysis, it seems doubtful that any law would ultimately deter those committed to the religious practice of handling snakes.

Indeed, its practitioners may well cite Acts 5:29 as an answer to such legal challenges. That passage reads: "We ought to obey God rather than men."

Many Christian churches reject one or more of the specific doctrines of other denominations.

But, even in rejecting them, church members can understand why others cherish such beliefs and practices.

Copyright 2004 Kingsport Times-News.