- By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) -- In the close-knit town of Middlesboro, Kentucky, almost everyone knew what was happening inside the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church -- including Police Chief Jeff Sharpe.
Despite a Kentucky law the prohibits snake-handling at religious services, Sharpe said he "made a decision not to involve this police department in somebody's church service."
"I'm not going to tell you that I didn't know what was going on. This is a small town," Sharpe said. "But we're not going to bust into anybody's church on Sunday morning."
The trouble at Full Gospel Tabernacle began on Saturday night when Pastor Jamie Coots, whose serpent-handling religious rituals made him a reality TV star, died after a rattlesnake bit him on the right hand.
Coots was a third-generation "serpent handler" and aspired to one day pass the practice and his church, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, on to his adult son, Little Cody.
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A National Geographic show featured Coots and cast handling all kinds of poisonous snakes -- copperheads, rattlers, cottonmouths. The channel's website shows a picture of Coots, goateed, wearing a fedora. "Even after losing half of his finger to a snake bite and seeing others die from bites during services," Coots "still believes he must take up serpents and follow the Holiness faith," the website says.
Coots belonged to a small circle of Pentecostal pastors who take this passage from the Bible's Gospel of Mark literally: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Faith in that last phrase played a role on Coots' death Saturday night, Sharpe said. "He was very open about his beliefs, that if he was bitten, he did not want medical treatment." Coots had been bitten by a snake before and recovered.
Sharpe said his department and an ambulance crew responded to a call at the church Saturday night but Coots and his family had already gone home. When they arrived at the Coots home, the pastor was unconscious and "in pretty bad shape."
Medical professionals stayed at Coots' house for half an hour, telling the family about the consequences of not seeking treatment, the police chief said, as family, friends and church members came and went. But the Coots family was adamant that God alone would heal the pastor, if it was divine will.
"Certainly, they were not aware of the danger," Sharpe said. "We have to offer this treatment, but we can't force them to take it."
The police chief said he knew Coots fairly well and spoke with the pastor several times about being bitten by serpents. It is not illegal to keep poisonous snakes in Kentucky, but it requires permits from the state Fish and Wildlife Department. Coots' permits were up-to-date, Sharpe said. "He was pretty meticulous."
"They were well aware of what they were doing, that they were handling dangerous snakes and could get bit. Please understand that these are not ignorant people but people with beliefs just a little outside the mainstream."
Despite Coots' death, Sharpe said he will not enforce Kentucky's ban against using serpents in religious services. "The Middlesboro police have their priorities and the State Police have theirs. If they want to come in and investigate that or any other church, they are quite welcome."
In February 2013, Coots was given one year of probation for crossing into Tennessee with venomous snakes. The state banned snake-handling in 1947 after five people died within a two-year span, the National Geographic Channel says on the show site.
He was previously arrested in 2008 for keeping 74 snakes in his home, according to the channel.
(CNN's Ashley Fantz contributed to this report.)