— U.S. Constitution, First Amendment
The U.S. Constitution is emphatic in prohibiting the federal government from interfering with religious practices, and the courts have interpreted the 14th Amendment to mean such a prohibition also applies to the states.
Thus, it’s clear that states should not go around defining, confirming or outlawing practices that are clearly religious.
Of course, opinions differ as to what counts as a religious observance. It depends on how you interpret the Scriptures. For example:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name . . . they shall take up serpents.” (Mark 16:17-18 KJV)
According to members of approximately 125 churches, mostly in the South, this verse indicates that one of the signs of a believer and his or her faith is the ability to “take up serpents.” That logic says any effort by a government to prohibit a believer from practicing and confirming his or her faith is a violation of the First Amendment.
Or, at least, that is the argument being made on behalf of Andrew Hamblin, pastor of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., who was arrested for illegally possessing dangerous animals – in this case 50 poisonous snakes, including rattlesnakes and copperheads.
Tennessee has strict restrictions on keeping dangerous wildlife. Hamblin argues that the snakes are being kept for religious purposes, the same way some religions keep wine for communion.
The court will now have to decide if Tennessee’s restrictions are reasonable for the public safety or if they constitute the state “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.
In Alabama, snake handling has been outlawed as a “reckless endangerment,” and so far that interpretation has been upheld by the courts. However, just what constitutes “endangerment” could be the issue if another case comes up. Some feel the snake must be passed from one person to another for there to be “endangerment,” while others feel anyone attending the service could be in danger when the snakes are brought out.
The religious aspect complicates things even more. While no one doubts the sincerity of the believers who handle the snakes, does the state want to get into a squabble over what constitutes a religious belief that a person or organization can act on? That could lead to the state passing judgment on matters like the inerrancy of the Bible, a literal versus symbolic meaning of a particular passage of Scripture, and whether a literal interpretation of a religious work should influence the way we look at modern issues that are not religious.
Issues such as same-sex marriage and evolution.
Unless, of course, the state might decide that it should step in and make those issues religious as well, which seems to be dangerously close to “establishing” a religion.