MCHENRY — A law review article concerning the legal history and religious practice of snake-handling in West Virginia written by Garrett College’s director of the library and learning commons has been cited by a prestigious legal encyclopedia.
The Encyclopedia of American Civil Rights and Liberties cited an article written by Robert “JR” Kerns Jr. titled “Protecting the faithful from their faith: A proposal for snake-handling law in West Virginia.” Kerns advocated for the construction of a new West Virginia law “which would not impede upon one’s fundamental right to religious beliefs, but rather regulate a harmful act for the protection of the citizens of the state.”
“It’s exciting to have my law review article cited in such a prestigious publication,” said Kerns, who recently joined Garrett College. Kerns earned his doctor of jurisprudence from West Virginia University College of Law in 2011 and a master of laws from the Michigan State University College of Law in 2016.
His article was previously cited by the seminal Law & Religion Casebook in the legal arena, Griffins Law & Religion 3rd edition. The article was published in the West Virginia Law Review in 2013. In it, he contended that West Virginia’s Uniform Controlled Substance Act “could create a restraint of degrees, under which people are not under-penalized so as to make the law moot, nor over-penalized so as to discourage conviction.”
Kerns’ article summarized the history of snake-handling as a profession of faith that risked life on Earth to ensure eternal life after death. Deaths from snake-handling incidents led to Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and Alabama to outlaw the practice between 1940 and 1950. However, the practice was not outlawed in West Virginia, which famously saw the death of preacher Mark Wolford in May 2012 after being bitten in the thigh by a yellow timber rattlesnake.
Kerns wrote a state has the authority to regulate behavior “within its borders when called upon to do so for the protection of its citizens.” He also noted that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jones v. City of Opelika “deduced that the First Amendment embraces two concepts – the freedom to believe and the freedom to act. The first is absolute, but the second cannot be.”
Qing Yuan, Garrett College’s dean of academic affairs, said Kerns’ article is an example of the thoughtful academic inquiry that the college’s faculty and staff encourage.