'Snake Salvation' pastor in court over possession of 50 snakes

Tabernacle Church of God Pastor Andrew Hamblin declares his faith in God and his right to handle snakes before his arraignment on Friday Nov. 15, 2013, in Jacksboro, Tennessee(AP)

The pastor of National Geographic reality tv show "Snake Salvation" was in court on Friday after more than 50 venomous snakes were confiscated from his church.

Pastor Andrew Hamblin, of the Tabernacle Church of God, in LaFollette, Tennessee, pleaded not guilty to charges of illegally possessing Class 1 wildlife.

At a court hearing in Jacksboro, he defended his right to possess the snakes, which included rattlesnakes and copperheads.

He was quoted by The New York Times as saying: "This ain't no longer just a fight for snake handling. This is a fight for freedom of religion."

It has been against the law to handle snakes in churches in Tennessee since 1947, and Hamblin faces a fine of up to $2,500 and a prison sentence.

Speaking to supporters outside the courthouse, Hamblin said it was his "God-given right" to take up a serpent "if God moves on me to take up a serpent".

"They came right into the house of God and just ripped them [snakes] away. That would be no different if they just came and ripped your Bible out of First Baptist," WATE quoted him as saying.

Serpent handling is practised among some Pentecostal churches that ground it in Mark 16:15-18, where Jesus says that those who believe "will pick up snakes with their hands".

A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for December 17.