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Reptiles and religion: Ky. pastor wants seized snakes returned, says he needs them for worship

(CBS) MIDDLESBORO, Ky. - A Kentucky pastor is fighting to get his snakes back after police in Tennessee confiscated them, CBS affiliate WKYT reports.

Pastor Jamie Coots says without the five snakes he's not obeying the word of God - plus, he says, his religious rights were violated when authorities seized the reptiles during a traffic stop.

It started on Jan. 31 on Interstate 40 in Knoxville, Tenn, where it's illegal to have any type of poisonous snake. Pastor Coots, of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, in Middlesboro, Ky., was stopped by police for dark tinted windows, and they saw the snakes - three rattlesnakes and two copperheads.

Coots had just purchased the reptiles for $800.

A Tennessee wildlife officer confiscated them.

"It's really frustrating to say the least," Coots told WKYT.

He said he's been fined before for his snakes, but they've never been taken away.

"Years we've traveled and went and got them and never anything," he said.

But this time around, he's charged with illegally possessing and transporting wildlife.

"Even if you are trained and experienced in handling them, there's always the issue of who else is going to be in the home that may come in contact with them," said Officer Joe Durnin with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Pastor Coots says he believes he needs the snakes to worship.

"We use them in our religious ceremonies. And I believe...if I don't have them there to use, then I'm not obeying the word of God," he said.

He also argues that the snakes are simply his property.

After failing to work out a plea agreement, a trial date of Feb. 25 was set for Pastor Coots on February 25.

For now, the seized snakes are in the Rainforest Adventure Zoo in Sevierville, Tenn.

  • Barry Leibowitz

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