When riots broke out in France this summer over the country’s prohibition on Muslim veils, many Americans looked on in disbelief. Such a violation of religious liberty would never be tolerated in the United States, a nation founded as a place where victims of religious persecution could worship freely. I once thought the same thing.
That changed in 2008, when I was arrested for observing my faith. My crime? Possessing snakes.
As pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, a Pentecostal church in Middlesboro, Ky., I and my congregants regularly handle venomous snakes such as copperheads and rattlesnakes as part of our services. This might seem strange, but it’s no less worthy of legal protection than the more common traditions observed by Jews, Muslims and mainstream Christians. In fact, as members of a small and unpopular religious minority, congregants of serpent-handling churches are precisely the sort of worshipers that the Constitution was designed to protect.