LAFOLLETTE (WATE) – A grand jury has declined to indict Campbell County pastor and reality television star Andrew Hamblin on charges related to snake handling.
Hamblin appeared before a Campbell County grand jury on Wednesday. The jury returned a no true bill, which means it decided there is no probable cause or evidence that a crime was committed.
Pastor Hamblin was cited in November for having dangerous wildlife. Fifty venomous snakes were seized from his church, The Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette.
Hamblin entered a not guilty plea a few days later. The case was sent on to the grand jury in December.
Hamblin said he is fighting for his right to worship with snakes, calling it a civil rights battle.
“No doubt some sat there and thought this guy’s a nut, no doubt some sat there and said, ‘Oh, that broke down a stereotype.’ Maybe even some were sinner people and maybe I shined a light,” Hamblin said.
Though he used his legal trouble as a platform to advocate for what he calls “freedom of religion,” Hamblin says the court case has taken its toll.
“Naturally this has put a strain and a stress not only on me, but my wife, my congregation,” he said.
At every court appearance, there’s been a crowd of Hamblin supporters.
“I’ve done it ever since I was 8 years old. I was raised in it,” said Arnold Saylor, who took over as pastor of Highway Holiness Church of God in Fort Wayne, Ind., from his father. “Snake-handling ain’t going away. You guys can try to stop us. We’re going still do it.”
Linda Spoon and her grandson Dakota Sciber are members of Hamblin’s church.
“I’m here to show Andrew that I love him and that I love the church family,” Sciber said.
“People should be able to worship God any way they choose,” Spoon said.
Hamblin says dealing with these snake handling charges the last few months has really taken away from the work they do at the church. That includes both worship and community outreach.
So he’s happy to be getting back to that, as well as sending a message about what he believes is religious freedom.
“Although it’s nothing major in a lot of people’s eyes, it may be a foundation being laid for religious freedom across the nation. Let people worship and let them be. They may be different from you. You may not understand it. But you don’t have to partake in it,” Hamblin explained.
He says it was not just about his religious freedom being trampled on, it was also about how TWRA went about it.
“I wasn’t read my Miranda rights until after we were in the room with the snakes. At that time numerous questions had already been asked. They had no search warrant. They filmed me and I wasn’t aware I was being filmed,” Hamblin said.
He says moving forward, the church will continue with serpent worship, hoping not to be targeted again.
“It’s costing the state and county money that could be used towards pulling drug dealers off the streets,” he said.
6 News did not get a clear answer on where the snakes would be coming from. So we asked him if there were still any slithering creatures in the church.
“I plead the fifth. I plead the fifth,” Hamblin responded.
The district attorney’s office says new charges could be brought against Hamblin in the future, though TWRA says they are not currently pursuing the case. Wildlife agents say the illegal snakes seized will not be returned.
The snakes have been in the care of the Knoxville Zoo since they were seized from the church. Keepers say they were in very poor condition and more than half have died. They say the others are at risk for spreading parasites and their future is uncertain at this time.
Hamblin says the church has gotten a tremendous amount of publicity from the incident, and that will help them grow.
6 News Reporters JILL MCNEAL and MONA NAIR contributed to this report.