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October 31, 2017

GC administrator cited in prestigious legal encyclopedia

JR Kerns, Garrett College

Kerns researched and wrote a law review article on Constitutional rights and the religious practice of snake-handling in West Virginia

A law review article written by Garrett College’s director of the library and learning commons concerning the legal history and religious practice of snake-handling in West Virginia has been cited by a prestigious legal encyclopedia.

The Encyclopedia of American Civil Rights and Liberties cited an article written by Robert W. (JR) Kerns, Jr. entitled Protecting the faithful from their faith: A proposal for snake-handling law in West Virginia. In that article, 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 joined Garrett College’s staff this past summer. Kerns earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence from West Virginia University College of Law in 2011 and Master of Laws from the Michigan State University College of Law in 2016.

"It’s an honor and privilege to have my work recognized by other legal scholars in the field and I’m proud this article was so well received," added Kerns, whose article was also previously cited by the seminal Law & Religion Casebook in the legal arena, Griffins Law & Religion 3rd edition.

The law review article by Kerns 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 – southern states where the practice was employed – 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.

Wolford, whose father died of a snake bite when the son was 15 years old, died 10 hours after being bitten, according to Kerns’ article.

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."

Specifically, according to Kerns, "a citizen of West Virginia has... the freedom to believe in whatever religion he or she chooses; however, the right to act upon those beliefs would again be non-absolute." Kerns contended that West Virginia "would still maintain the authority, and duty, to protect its citizens, meaning it may restrain not one’s beliefs, but one’s acts, when doing so prevents harm to people."

Kerns promoted West Virginia’s Uniform Controlled Substance Act as an "excellent model for the regulation of snake-handling" in the state.

"Controlled substance use... is an offense comparable to... snake-handling," wrote Kerns. "The lone drug user may argue that he has the right to do as he pleases to himself, even if harmful, yet the law imposes restraints in the interest of the welfare of the society."

After acknowledging that the lone user is the "least offender" who should receive the "lesser penalty", he continued that those who expose others to the perils of snake-handling should be treated "like the drug offender who has the intent to manufacture or distribute." Continuing the parallel, he wrote that snake-handlers endangering minors or engaging in actions leading to deaths of others should be subject to more serious penalties.

Dr. 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.

"We strongly support serious, well-researched academic activities dealing with regional issues," said Dr. Yuan. "I congratulate Dr. Kerns on his engaging work."