02/24/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

In Defense of Snake Handlers

Before we get to the snakes, what do we mean by religious freedom? I think it means that individuals can practice, promote, and proselytize for their religion, but that government cannot favor one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. If government exempts an action from law because of a person's religious belief, I think that same exemption should apply to non-religious conscientious belief. Example? The Supreme Court ruling in favor of an atheist conscientious objector to war.

However, claims of religious belief or conscience cannot be used as a valid excuse to undermine society's promotion of the general welfare. For instance, we must pay taxes even for government expenses we morally oppose. For me that would include wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Drugs; for others it might include Obamacare. A pharmacist should be required to dispense prescriptions regardless of religious belief, just as a supermarket cashier is required to check out meat products regardless of vegan belief.

An unconscionable bill passed by the Arizona Legislature would allow widespread discrimination against the LGBT community in the name of religious liberty. If the governor signs it into law, business owners can refuse to serve gay customers by claiming that it would violate their religious principles. A similar measure was recently defeated in Kansas, but such bills are being considered in other states.

Obamacare, which requires employers to provide coverage for contraceptives, exempts some religious employers. Their employees could still get free access to contraception through a third-party insurance provider, but some employers still object because they simply don't want their workers to get contraceptives. Message to employers: Religious liberty gives you the right to argue against contraceptives, but not the right to take away the freedom of individuals to make their own health care decisions.

People are always free to pray the cancer or the burst appendix away. They can also use tarot cards, psychics, or exorcists. In fact, an easily affordable health care plan is offered in Mark 16:17-18: "These signs will follow believers: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." (A cautionary note: All potentially life-threatening freedoms apply to adults only, not to minors.)

In reality, snakes have been more effective in reducing over-population than in healing the sick. See Darwin Awards. Kentucky Pastor Jamie Coots, who was also a reality TV star on Snake Salvation, recently died after refusing treatment for a bite he received while handing snakes during a service. To paraphrase Matt 26:52: He who lives by the snake, dies by the snake.

Nonetheless, I side with the religious freedom of snake handlers who practice their religion without imposing it on those of us who live in the real world and decline to play with poisonous snakes.

What I admire (sort of) about Coots is that he was no hypocrite. He died for his beliefs, which would be considered a martyr's death in some circles. Contrast that with televangelists who ask poor people for love offerings, financial or otherwise. A few years ago TV preacher Robert Tilton exemplified the breed when he told people to send money along with their prayer requests, for which he promised special prayers. Unfortunately for him, ABC news dug up the dumpster-diver evidence of the requests being discarded unread after the money had been removed (not that it would have made any difference had the prayer requests been read).

Unbelievable faith beliefs are required by many religions, which brings to mind Mark Twain's definition of faith: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Does having faith that poisonous snakes won't kill you make any less sense than having faith that you are literally eating the body and drinking the blood of a Jew who has been dead for 2,000 years?

Suicide was once a crime, but now is mostly legal. I would try to dissuade a potential suicide victim, but sometimes people have rational arguments for end-of-life choices. So I support a person's right to physician-assisted suicide, though some religions try to prevent everyone from exercising this option. To that I offer a valuable cliché: If you don't want to have a physician-assisted suicide (or contraception, abortion, blood transfusion, exorcism, prayers, snakes, whatever), then don't have one.

A live and let live attitude on most matters of religion could lead to a more peaceful world, but sometimes it would also mean a live and let die attitude--including by snakes or suicide.