On a recent Sunday morning at the First Progressive Church of Gooseberry, Kentucky, Rev. T. Jerrome Stanley concluded his sermon titled "The Sins of Sean Hannity" by inviting his congregation to open up the boxes that were stacked near the altar. One by one, the churchgoers opened up the boxes that contained copperheads and rattlesnakes.
A young man wearing an Amnesty International T-shirt drew the head of a snake to his nose, daring the serpent to strike him. A few feet away, a woman with flowers in her hair brushes her finger against a snake, playing with it as if it were a pet. "I think it likes the scent of my patchouli oil," she said.
From the outside, the First Progressive Church looks like any other church, with the exception of the solar panel roof. It's what goes on inside the church that creates controversy in Gooseberry and in other communities where liberal snake-handling churches are springing up.
"We want everyone to know that not all churches that engage in serpent handling are all about fire and brimstone," said Rev. Stanley. "Ours is an inclusive, open-minded church that advocates for social justice. Glenn Beck would hate it here."
Most churches in Gooseberry remained silent about the newly opened First Progressive Church and their snake-handling practice until its members voted unanimously to allow openly-gay deacons to serve in the church. "The First Progressive Church's teachings contradict the Bible," said Father Fred Murray of Our Mother of Just About Everything Halfway Decent Catholic Church. "I'm also concerned about the safety of the church's members...and the members' members," he said, referring to an incident in which a snake injected venom into a man's penis at a liberal snake-handling church in Flagstaff, Arizona.
When asked about the Flagstaff incident, Rev. Stanley said, "I understand that the man who was bitten by the snake didn't support Greenpeace. Maybe that's why God let it happen."
After church, Victoria Oslin leaned against her car as she willingly shared her faith. A proud member of PETA with a "Meat is Murder" bumper sticker displayed on her Prius, Oslin said, "The snakes we use in our services are treated with the utmost respect and ethical standards. We need them so we will know who in our flock are unjust and conservative. The man from Flagstaff who got bit on his staff favored abstinence-only sex education. Try to tell me that's not a coincidence."