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Kim DavisWhile there is something more than a little unattractive about the relish with which the jailing of Kim Davis, the errant county clerk (a Democrat, as it happens) unwilling to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, has been celebrated by some, she has both abused her position and provided a useful reminder of the fact that many of those now calling for ‘religious freedom’ (a good thing) really want religious privilege (not so much). So far as Ms. Davis is concerned God’s law (as she understands it) not only trumps the law of the land, but is something that she is prepared to impose on others. But Thomas More is, mercifully, long dead. That sort of thinking is more commonly associated these days with the realm of Shariah than the West.

And those in the US pushing for an expansive definition of what they call religious freedom should pay more attention to stories that illustrate the direction in which things are going, stories like this:

CNN: A Muslim flight attendant says she was suspended by ExpressJet for refusing to serve alcohol in accordance with her Islamic faith. In a bid to get her job back, Charee Stanley filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday for the revocation of a reasonable religious accommodation.

She wants to do her job without serving alcohol in accordance with her Islamic faith — just as she was doing before her suspension, her lawyer said.

“What this case comes down to is no one should have to choose between their career and religion and it’s incumbent upon employers to provide a safe environment where employees can feel they can practice their religion freely,” said Lena Masri, an attorney with Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Stanley, 40, started working for ExpressJet nearly three years ago. About two years ago she converted to Islam. This year she learned her faith prohibits her from not only consuming alcohol but serving it, too, Masri said.

“Noone should have to choose between their career and religion?”

Noone.

Ever?

Masri and Davis are pointing the way to a sectarian, Balkanized America, a path that will not end well.

Davis should resign. And so should Stanley.

Link
http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/05/travel/muslim-flight-attendant-feat/

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Oct/14

17

“A Kind of Hydraulic Effect”

Hobby LobbyWriting in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin wonders where the Hobby Lobby decision might lead:

The great Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that important Supreme Court decisions “exercise a kind of hydraulic effect.” Even if the authors of such decisions assert that their rulings will have limited impact, these cases invariably have a profound influence. So it has been with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which is less than six months old….

Justice Samuel Alito insisted, in his opinion for the Court, that [the] in decision [in Hobby Lobby] would be very limited in its effect. Responding to the dissenting opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who called it “a decision of startling breadth,” Alito wrote, “Our holding is very specific. We do not hold, as the principal dissent alleges, that for-profit corporations and other commercial enterprises can ‘opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.’ ” Ginsburg, though, wondered where the guidance was for the lower courts when faced with similar claims from employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others).

The problem is not (necessarily) what was decided in the Supreme Court but how that decision will be interpreted in lower courts where, for the most part, it will stay:

A sampling of court actions since Hobby Lobby suggests that Ginsburg has the better of the argument. She was right: the decision is opening the door for the religiously observant to claim privileges that are not available to anyone else.

One such matter is Perez v. Paragon Contractors, a case that arose out of a Department of Labor investigation into the use of child labor by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (The F.L.D.S. church is an exiled offshoot of the Mormon Church.) In the case, Vernon Steed, a leader of the F.L.D.S. church, refused to answer questions by federal investigators, asserting that he made a religious vow not to discuss church matters. Applying Hobby Lobby, David Sam, a district-court judge in Utah, agreed with Steed, holding that his testimony would amount to a “substantial burden” on his religious beliefs—a standard used in Hobby Lobby—and excused him from testifying. The judge, also echoing Hobby Lobby, said that he needed only to determine that Steed’s views were “sincere” in order to uphold his claim. Judge Sam further noted that the government had failed to prove that demanding Steed’s testimony was not, in the words of the R.F.R.A., “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” That burden seems increasingly difficult for the government to meet…

To repeat a point I made in an earlier post:

It ought to go without saying that religious freedom is part of the bedrock of American liberty, but so too is the notion of equality before the law. There has to be unum, so to speak, as well as pluribus.

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Sep/14

21

‘Religious Freedom’, Dogs and Taxis

taxiCBC:

A Saskatoon man who is blind and uses a service animal has launched a complaint to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, alleging a local taxi company is not providing service because of his guide dog. Mike Simmonds claims he’s been denied taxi service more than once because of his dog.

“I think it is common,” Simmonds told CBC News Friday. “If you don’t have the dog you’re not going to hear much about it. Someone like me, I feel strongly about my rights. I feel strongly about my dog helping me out. I want to speak out.”

Simmonds said he has been told that some cab drivers have refused to pick him up with his dog because of their religious beliefs.

Michael Coren, noting that the always PC CBC had oddly omitted to mention what those ‘religious beliefs” might be, tweets, “those Christians!”

Now there needs to be some caution about this story (“Simmonds said he has been told that”), but I suspect that this ABC report from 2007 is not entirely irrelevant:

Commissioners at one of the country’s biggest airports are considering punishing Muslim cab drivers who refuse service to passengers possessing alcohol or guide dogs. The cabbies claim transporting those items violates Islamic law.

“It is against our faith and the airport is discriminating against Muslim drivers,” says a cab driver who would only give his first name, Hashim.

Three-quarters of the 900 cabbies licensed to operate at [Minneapolis-St. Paul’s] airport are Muslim, most from Somalia. It is unclear how many are adhering to this letter of Islamic law which considers the purchase, drinking and transport of alcoholic beverages a sin. Islam also regards the saliva from dogs to be unclean. Nearly 40 million people travel through Minneapolis-St Paul airport annually. Over the past 5 years, airport officials say 5,400 passengers have been turned away. Some had guide dogs or pets, others were carrying cases of wine from California, or liquor from duty-free shops.

“There are times where cab after cab will refuse service, and passengers can be waiting for 20 minutes,” says Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. “We’ve had complaints of people being asked if they had any alcoholic beverages in their luggage.”

To be sure, the airport commissioners were reported as going to take action as, apparently are city officials in Saskatoon. Nevertheless these two stories— one from Canada, one from the US—are a useful reminder to those in the United States currently pushing for a very wide definition of the religious rights protected by the First Amendment that, in an increasingly multicultural nation, they may find some of the consequences far less congenial than they imagine.

It ought to go without saying that religious freedom is part of the bedrock of American liberty, but so too is the notion of equality before the law.

There has to be unum, so to speak, as well as pluribus.

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Jul/14

19

Balkanization Watch

kirpanIt’s difficult not to despair sometimes when confronting some of the excesses of the zero tolerance crowd in the nation’s schools: the toddler sent home for pointing in a way that made his fingers look like a gun, and all the rest.

Nevertheless, the news contained in this report produced by the Becket Fund, a group named, tellingly enough after a defender of priestly legal privilege, ought to give to rise to a degree of concern:

Amandeep Singh, a ninth-grade honor student in New York, was reprimanded and suspended indefinitely for wearing a kirpan—a ceremonial religious item worn by members of the Sikh faith—to school.

Amandeep became a baptized Sikh at age eight, requiring him, like 20 million other Sikhs worldwide, to follow the five Sikh articles of faith. The best known of these is the requirement to wear hair uncut in a turban. Another requirement is the kirpan, an item shaped like a sword that reminds Sikhs of their duty to speak out against injustice and stand up for the defenseless. In deference to school security concerns, school-age children like Amandeep typically wear a very small, blunt kirpan that cannot be used to harm anyone.

For over seven years, Amandeep attended local public schools and continuously observed all five articles of his faith, including the wearing of the kirpan, without any incident. Many of his teachers were aware of his kirpan and specifically commended him for his dedication to his faith. None ever told him that his kirpan–which was duller than a butter knife and secured underneath his clothes–posed any sort of danger.

Without explanation, school officials suddenly reversed course in February 2005 and declared Amandeep’s kirpan to be a prohibited “weapon.” Moreover, they refused to allow him to set foot on school grounds unless he abandoned his article of faith. At that point, Amandeep retained The Becket Fund to protect his religious freedom.

The Becket Fund intervened on Amandeep’s behalf, meeting with school district officials to explain the kirpan’s religious significance and Amandeep’s rights under the First Amendment. The district quickly changed course, agreeing to allow Amandeep to continue his education without compromising his faith.

This was a victory not only for Amandeep and other Sikhs, but also for free religious exercise in public schools. The district’s actions were “evidence of religious discrimination,” Jared Leland, media and legal counsel for Becket, told the Journal News . “He was really being forced to choose between attending a public school and practicing his faith, and that’s something that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

Now, I have no problem with the idea allowing a Sikh child—or any other child—to wear a safe, very small, very blunted and entirely symbolic sword under their clothes at school. The school’s security policy should never have been so narrow as to ban it. But to permit this exception purely on the grounds of religious belief is more troubling, not particularly in itself (Amandeep’s kirpan seems completely harmless), but for the precedent it may set. What other school rules or procedures could children be exempted from in future purely because compliance with those rules or procedures contravened a possibly less benign aspect of one or another creed?

A generous and broad assertion of the principle of freedom of religion is something that makes America America, and rightly so, but so too is the notion of equality before the law, and, for that matter, something else too. How to put it? Well, this will do: E pluribus unum.

There has to be unum as well, so to speak, as pluribus

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Jan/14

16

Satanic Versus

SatanicRitualJoseph Laycock of Religion Dispatches talks here to (and about) “Lucien Greaves”, who is, apparently, the man behind the piece of Satanic kitsch now planned for Oklahoma.

Disappointingly, Greaves turns out to be a rather wishy-washy devil worshiper:

In 2005, Greaves had lunch with Peter H. Gilmore, high priest of the Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey. Greaves felt that a cultural shift had occurred with the rise of the New Atheist movement, led by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and that Satanists should participate in this new conversation about religion in the public sphere. As a cognitive scientist, he was suspicious of Dawkins’ claims that humanity can live without religion since he felt that humans are “hard wired” to interpret the world through a rich language of symbol, narrative, and ritual. So Greaves imagined Satanism as a religion that could combine Dawkins’ aversion to supernaturalism with powerful and compelling symbols—what might be called a “sacralized” atheism.

Greaves is dead right about the hard wiring, but somehow I cannot see old Nick as an entirely plausible object of veneration to be used in the rites of—no God help us—“sacralized” atheism. There’s just too much baggage there, souls in torment, fire, brimstone, apocalypse, Rosemary’s Baby, you know how it goes.

Read on further, and it turns out that Greaves is using his supposedly Satanic agenda to make a decidedly political point.

Greaves was eventually approached by The Satanic Temple, a group that shared his political goals and saw Satanism as a “poison pill” that could be used to check the erosion of the establishment clause by reminding the public that privileges afforded to Christians could also be afforded to Satanists….

Future plans involve legally ordaining ministers and using the free exercise clause to claim privileges for Satanists. Satanic ministers could, for example, illegally marry a gay couple and then, when the state refuses to recognize the marriage, claim that their free exercise rights have been violated.

So satire then?

Laycock continues:

To gain any legal traction, Greaves will have to demonstrate that he is sincere about Satanism and that these projects are more than just pranks, which may prove difficult for a newly formed group that denies any belief in the supernatural. His opponents understand this too. Greaves described how, before his work with the Satanic Temple, advocates of SRA produced conspiracy theories about him, claiming that only someone secretly connected to criminal Satanism would challenge their claims. But now that he’s demanded Constitutional rights for Satanists, his detractors have reversed course. In an interview with Fox News he was repeatedly challenged as not being a real Satanist. Even the Church of Satan has joined the queue to call Greaves a phony Satanist.

In an article for Time, the Church’s High Priestess Magistra Peggy Nadramia, claimed that Greaves is not an authentic Satanist and merely “riding the coattails” of the Church of Satan, adding that “The Church of Satan is decidedly uninterested in politics.”

Greaves dismissed these attacks, asserting that preserving their status as the monolithic embodiment of Satanism appears to be the Church’s only goal. For his own part, Greaves claims he has no interest in being the public face of Satanism and that struggles over leadership are at odds with Satanism’s anti-authoritarian philosophy.

Satanism has an “anti-authoritarian” philosophy? That’s not how it looked in The Omen.

The conclusion to this piece though is well worth pondering

Greaves feels that a community centered around Satan—not as a literal entity but a potent metaphor for values that he holds sacred—is more than just a philosophy and should enjoy the same Constitutional protections afforded to religion. If the Satanic Temple’s campaign has any traction it will force a public discussion not simply on the Constitutional issues surrounding religion, but on the perennial problem of what religion is.

Once-in a saner era-there would have been no problem at all about defining what a ‘proper’ religion was. Well, not too much, anyway. But now…

To repeat the point that I made the other day, those pursuing a highly expansive definition of “religious freedom” in today’s very changed America may well not appreciate where such arguments may lead.

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Jan/14

11

The Devil Rides Out

Satan OklahomaCould some Satanic kitsch be about to descend upon Oklahoma City?

The Daily News reports:

A satanic group unveiled designs Monday for a 7-foot-tall statue of Satan it wants to put at the Oklahoma state Capitol, where a Ten Commandments monument was placed in 2012.

The New York-based Satanic Temple formally submitted its application to a panel that oversees the Capitol grounds, including an artist’s rendering that depicts Satan as Baphomet, a goat-headed figure with horns, wings and a long beard that’s often used as a symbol of the occult. In the rendering, Satan is sitting in a pentagram-adorned throne with smiling children next to him.

“The monument has been designed to reflect the views of Satanists in Oklahoma City and beyond,” temple spokesman Lucien Greaves said in a statement. “The statue will also have a functional purpose as a chair where people of all ages may sit on the lap of Satan for inspiration and contemplation.”

The Satanic Temple maintains that the Oklahoma Legislature’s decision to authorize a privately funded Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol opened the door for its statue. The Ten Commandments monument was placed on the north steps of the building in 2012, and the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has sued to have it removed…

And (as the Daily News had revealed earlier) Satan might not be the only new arrival:

Days after a Satanist group expressed a desire to construct a monument on the grounds of Oklahoma’s state capitol, a Hindu organization announced that they would also like a slice of that religious freedom pie.

Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, announced plans to erect a statue of the revered Hindu god Hanuman, the monkey king, outside the capitol.

Hanuman is an important deity in the Hindu pantheon. He is revered for his life of service and his devotion to the powerful god Rama.

And there are other candidates to stand alongside the Ten Commandments too.

Somehow, I don’t think that the Oklahoma State Legislature had this quite in mind. In an age of multiculturalism, a strict view of the separation of church and state may be about to win some unexpected converts.

Man plans, God laughs.

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Jan/14

4

A Bitter Pill?

birth-control-pillThis piece is from the Guardian and it comes with some of the paper’s usual irritating baggage, but it is still worth reading as an examination of the factual background to the Little Sisters HHS case:

The ACA has a series of outs for religious employers who say medication like contraception violates their moral beliefs. It’s essentially three-tied: for-profit organizations have to cover contraception in their health plans; explicitly religious organizations like churches don’t have to provide contraception if they believe birth control is morally wrong; and religiously-affiliated non-profits that are neither owned nor controlled by religious groups do not have to provide contraception either, but they have to fill out a form certifying that they are religiously-affiliated, and then a third party administrator makes sure that employees can get contraception if they need it. The third-party administrator, and not the employer, pays for contraception coverage.

In the case that led Sotomayor to issue the injunction, an organization called the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged objected to the ACA’s contraception requirement. All the Little Sisters have to do is fill out a form and the organization will be under no obligation to pay for birth control for its many employees – which include home health aides, nurses, administrators and a variety of women who may not be Catholic or, like 98% of sexually active Catholic women, may choose to use a birth control method other than natural family planning – but apparently a form is too great an intrusion on their religious liberty….

The Becket Fund [a fund I note named after a priest ‘martyred’ for his belief in religious legal privilege], a conservative organization representing the Little Sisters, claims that the ACA restricts the religious freedom of the Sisters because the Sisters rely on a Catholic insurance company, the Christian Brothers Trust, for their company health insurance. The Christian Brothers Trust doesn’t provide coverage for hormonal birth control, IUDs or sterilization.

According to the Becket Fund, the Sisters are stuck between a rock and a hard place: they could continue to participate in the Christian Brothers Trust insurance coverage and refuse to designate the Christian Brothers as a contraception provider, which the Becket Fund says would result in ACA-related fines, or they could designate the Christian Brothers Trust to provide contraception coverage, violating both groups’ deeply-held religious beliefs. Alternately, they could drop health coverage all together, which would also put them at risk for fines. Or, they could ditch the Christian Brothers Trust and designate new group insurance coverage, which would cover contraception for employees without making the Sisters pay for or negotiate a single thing, but would again require them to fill out a form that supposedly violates their belief that employees shouldn’t be allowed to get contraception.

The Little Sisters aren’t paying for contraception even through a third-party-secured insurance plan; they certainly aren’t being asked to distribute it, and Catholic nuns aren’t being force-fed birth control pills. They simply have to sign a piece of paper saying they’re a religious group, and then turn to a third party to negotiate all the details….

[A]s it turns out, the Christian Brothers Trust insurance group can refuse to provide contraception and will face no fines or consequences. That’s because the Trust is a self-insured “church plan”, which means that the Little Sisters can designate the Christian Brothers as the third-party administrators, and if the Brothers still refuse to provide contraception coverage, the government can’t fine them. In other words: the Little Sisters can continue operating exactly as before, and nothing will happen….

Food for thought.

The court will decide what it decides and (not being too familiar with the constitutional case law) I have no opinion on how that could—or should—spin out, but, as a matter of commonsense and of basic equity (none of which, of course, need be particularly relevant where the law courts are concerned) it remains hard for me to see these rules as an assault on religious freedom. That the Roman Catholic Church has also long been a supporter of universal healthcare only adds irony—and a degree of insult—to the mix.

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Dec/13

10

Religious Freedom!

OmenI’ll admit it. This made me laugh.

The Guardian reports:

In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including Satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument outside the statehouse. The Republican-controlled legislature in the state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorised the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009. It was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts, who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

“We believe that all monuments should be in good taste and consistent with community standards,” Greaves wrote in letter to state officials. “Our proposed monument, as an homage to the historic/literary Satan, will certainly abide by these guidelines.”

And the little ones are not left out:

Greaves said one potential design involves a pentagram, a satanic symbol, while another is meant to be an interactive display for children.

For the children!

Meanwhile…

The Republican state representative Mike Ritze, who spearheaded the push for the Ten Commandments monument and whose family helped pay the $10,000 for its construction, declined to comment on the Satanic Temple’s effort, but Greaves credited Ritze for opening the door to his group’s proposal.

“He’s helping a satanic agenda grow more than any of us possibly could,” Greaves said. “You don’t walk around and see too many satanic temples around, but when you open the door to public spaces for us, that’s when you’re going to see us.”

The Oklahoma legislature has taken other steps that many believe blur the line that divides church and state. The House speaker said he wants to build a chapel inside the Capitol to celebrate Oklahoma’s “Judeo-Christian heritage”. Several lawmakers have said they want to allow nativity scenes and other religious-themed symbols in public schools. The Republican representative Bobby Cleveland, who plans to introduce one such bill next year, said many Christians feel they are under attack as a result of political correctness. He dismissed the notion of Satanists erecting a monument at the Capitol.

“I think these Satanists are a different group,” Cleveland said. “You put them under the nut category.”

Well yes, but…

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Dec/13

5

For Thee, But Not For Me (Again)

U.S. President Obama and Cardinal Dolan pictured during 2012 Alfred E. Smith Dinner in New YorkFox News:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said Sunday the Catholic church remains opposed to ObamaCare in large part because it requires businesses to offer health-insurance plans that include no-cost contraception.

Dolan, the former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church’s position is a difficult one, considering it has supported universal, affordable and comprehensive health care since the early 1990s.
“We bishops have really been in kind of a tough place,” Dolan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “That’s how far we go in this battle. We’re not Johnny-come-latelies.”

He also warned President Obama that the contraception mandate in his signature health care law might “push aside” some of his biggest supporters.

“We want to be with you. We want to be strong, and if you keep doing this, we’re not going to be able to be one of your cheerleaders,” said Dolan, several days after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the mandate by the Christian-owned retail chain Hobby Lobby.

So the Roman Catholic Church wants universal healthcare, paid for by taxpayers. That’s a debatable point of view, but far from outlandish. But then the church wants to opt out of those parts of this supposedly universal healthcare that it does not like. Everyone else, of course, has to lump it.

That’s religious privilege, not “religious freedom”.

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Nov/13

28

Religious Freedom!

Snake handlingIt’s not just the HHS contraception mandate. Another front opens up in the ‘religious freedom’ debate. The Daily Telegraph reports:

As beads of sweat slithered down his temples, Andrew Hamblin stared in wide-eyed wonder at the three-foot timber rattlesnake he had thrust towards his congregation.

“I am a soldier in the army of the Lord,” he boomed in a thick southern drawl, stomping a foot on the hardwood floor. “And the enemy has been fighting me this week harder than ever before”.

In this shed tucked into a dark valley of the Appalachian Mountains, before 60 adoring followers speaking in tongues, throwing up their hands and dabbing tears from their eyes, Mr Hamblin was breaking the law. The 22-year-old preacher is facing up to a year in prison after being charged with illegally possessing 53 venomous snakes seized from his church by Tennessee wildlife agency officers earlier this month. Yet the charismatic young pastor, part of a century-old Pentecostal tradition in the region that takes literally an instruction in the Gospel of Mark that “they shall take up serpents”, remains piously defiant.

Since appearing in court, he has continued wielding poisonous snakes during his raucous services at Tabernacle Church of God, after fresh creatures were snuck inside by his allies.

“I’m willing to fight this, because here in the United States we’re supposed to be guaranteed our religious freedom under the first amendment of the constitution…”We’re Christians who believe in being saved by the blood of Jesus Christ just like any other – it’s not like we’re part of some different religion. I do feel it is an attack upon our religious freedom.”

His followers claim they are victims of a state crackdown. Mr Hamblin’s mentor Jamie Coots, a a preacher based just over the border in Kentucky, had three rattlesnakes and two copperheads confiscated after being stopped while driving home through Tennessee earlier this year.

Mr Hamblin said he was called on by God to handle the creatures, and that their appearances were shows of divine power. He likened the practice to “Catholics using wine”.

Yet Matthew Cameron, a wildlife agency spokesman, dismissed all talk of persecution and said Mr Hamblin’s storage of the snakes in a back room was simply a serious “public safety hazard”.

“We treat him just as we would anyone else found to be storing venomous snakes in their home,” said Mr Cameron, who stressed that zoos and circuses must obtain permits to possess snakes in the state. Several pastors have died from bites in recent years. Mack Wolford of West Virginia, who led one of the best-attended snake-handling churches out of an estimated 125 in the region, made international headlines after being killed by a timber rattlesnake in May last year. During Mr Hamblin’s service on Friday night, several young children, including some of his own five, wandered around just yards from the snake’s box, while their parents prayed and sang.

Mr Hamblin stressed that only adults may handle the creatures. “I can understand not wanting to endanger another’s life,” he said. “That’s perfectly understandable. But in 100 years, there have been only 10 deaths in Tennessee from serpents.” He is himself unable to make a fist with his right hand, after being bitten on a knuckle in 2010 and ending up in hospital. “I was at death’s door,” he said. “Me and death were just about ready to smoke a cigarette together”.

Yet God told him to continue, he said, and showed that he would be safe by allowing another snake to bite him on the back of the neck soon after. While Mr Hamblin’s shirt was soaked in blood, he escaped serious injury. “I never swelled, I never itched, I never suffered nothing but bleeding,” he recalled. And his congregants are intensely devoted to his style of worship. “Just weeks ago I was far from God,” said Jeremy Henegar, 20, with a piercing stare.

“Whisky, beer or moonshine – I was a full-blown alcoholic. But when I took up serpents I was right there in the presence of God. I felt approval for the first time. What once was deadly, he made harmless.”

While dozens of his fellow pastors hold their services in secret and close their doors to outsiders, Mr Hamblin is determined to bring his sect into the mainstream. He hopes to found America’s first snake-handling mega-church. He is due back in court next month, and may face additional charges. Yet his followers have no intention of allowing the state to stop them. “If I were to be sent to be prison,” he said, “boy – I think that would set off such a blast”.

Skeptical as I am about so many of the claims made in the name of ‘religious freedom’ (too often a crude assertion of religious privilege), there’s a part of me that hopes that Tennessee can, through regulation (Proper storage facilities? No children present?), find a way to accommodate this little slice of the old, weird America.

Or perhaps I’m just over-influenced by Mr. Hamblin supplying me with a lovely, fantastic, nutty image so saturated in (probably unconscious) disrespect for contemporary pieties that it merits a hallelujah or two:

“I was at death’s door. Me and death were just about ready to smoke a cigarette together”.

Perfect.

America!

Happy Thanksgiving.

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