Virginia Priestess Raises Concerns Over Discriminatory Town Code

Heather Greene —  May 11, 2014 — 27 Comments

In April Priestess Maya White Sparks was asked to read Tarot at a local store on Main Street in Front Royal, Virginia. Maya has been a practicing witch for 39 years and reading Tarot for 28 of those years. She is the founding Priestess of the well-established Spiral Grove, a local “interpath community of nature spirituality.”

Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]

Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]

On April 12 she spent the day reading cards and offering spiritual counseling within the popular store, Brooklyn’s Marketplace. As far as she could tell, the day went very smoothly. Unfortunately she was blissfully unaware of the trouble brewing.

Several days later Maya received a voice mail from store owner Brooklyn Ballou informing her that she was no longer welcome to read in the store. According to Maya, the message said, “People in the shop and people from Main Street didn’t think she was appropriate for Main Street.”

Front Royal is a small Virginia town 70 miles west of Washington DC nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. This Blue Ridge Mountain community has a population of 14,666 most of whom are either Protestant or completely unaffiliated with any church or religion. There is also a strong conservative Catholic presence which is not surprising for a town that is home to Christendom College. The region also has a sizable Pagan and Heathen population who support Front Royal’s metaphysical store Mountain Mystic Trading Company.

However Mountain Mystic is not located on Main Street which seems to be the crux of Maya’s problem. Brooklyn’s Marketplace is at the town’s center surrounded by antique shops, restaurants, a theater, a Methodist church, and the Catholic bookstore “Faithful and True.” On the day Maya was reading, several regular Marketplace customers and Main Street business owners voiced their concerns with her presence on Main Street. Many of the offended customers threatened to never return.

Brooklyn called the situation “ridiculous” but had to do what was best for the store. Brooklyn’s Marketplace is not a typical shop. It is a project of the nonprofit organization Center for Workforce Development which aims at:

…[improving] the lives and well-being of our participants and their families by providing a livable wage and opportunities for life-long learning while always being of service to our community.

The Marketplace supports 15 separate small business owners who depend on the store for their livelihood. In making any decision Brooklyn has to consider the welfare of all 15 people not just herself.

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Brooklyn explains that this was not the first time Maya’s presence raised eyebrows. Last year she invited Maya to read at the town’s spring Wine & Art Festival. During that day several people voiced complaints saying that “they couldn’t believe she’d allow witches in her store.” Brooklyn didn’t take any of it seriously until this year when the off-handed remarks turned to direct threats. She says, “I just can’t “afford to lose customers.”

Brooklyn would not reveal the identities of those making the threats or offending comments. Regardless Maya doesn’t blame Brooklyn or anyone for that matter. In fact she sees this as an opportunity to teach and hopefully change the local climate of misinformation and fear. As such she has taken it upon herself to use the incident as way to “shine a light on discrimination against Pagans.”

During her initial research to formulate a plan, Maya was surprised to find a town ordinance outlawing the practice of divination and magic.

110-17 FORTUNETELLING OR PRACTICING MAGIC ART

A. It shall be unlawful for any company of gypsies or other strolling company or person to receive compensation or reward for pretending to tell fortunes or to practice any so-called “magic art.”

 B. Every person violating this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not less than five hundred dollars ($500.) or confined in jail not less than one (1) nor more than six (6) months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

This law had no influence or bearing on the Marketplace incident. However she decided to use the code, or the removal of the code, as a rallying point to begin the conversation. She wants this effort “to be a catalyst that gets [the local community] talking about religious discrimination.”

When she informed friends about her discovery and mission, Maya received immediate support both in person and on Social Media. She says “Within seconds of posting on Facebook I had a tremendous” response from people across the country.

One of these supporters was Elizabeth Tucker, a 17 year-old Pagan high school student and daughter of a friend who took it upon herself to immediately call Town attorney Douglas W Napier. Elizabeth says:

I was really mad and felt it needed to be taken care of immediately. I asked [Mr. Napier] if he was aware of the ordinance and he said he wasn’t. So I told him the number of it and he looked it up then said he would bring it up at the next council meeting.

Attorney Douglas Napier was indeed surprised by the ordinance and told The Wild Hunt that it is one of those century old laws that has long been forgotten. He added that the town’s council was currently in the process of fully revising the code in order to remove “invalid, old or superficial provisions.” Looking at the town’s municipal code, it is easy to see that it contains many outdated laws and regulations. The code uses terms like “dancehall” and “pinball arcade.”

When asked about the situation at the store, Mr. Napier had no knowledge of what had occurred until Elizabeth’s call. Neither the town nor Code 110-17 was involved. Mr. Napier commented that this law is “certainly not something that could be used against anyone in its current form.”

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park near Front Royal [Photo Credit: Ken Lund/Flickr]

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park near Front Royal [Photo Credit: Ken Lund/Flickr]

Maya is still researching the proper procedures and protocols needed to remove Code 110-17. When asked if she was planning on calling Lady Liberty League or other similar national organizations, she said, “No. That doesn’t really fit my goal.” She wants to keep the focus on the community and the effort very local. She also added, “I don’t want to force my way into the shop … I just want to get people thinking.”

In the past few days Maya has made significant headway. Her story was published on the front page of the local North Virginia Daily. Town Manager Steve Burke sent her the following letter:

Thank you for bringing this section of our Town Code to my attention.

Code Section 110-17 appears to be a section that would prove difficult for the Town to enforce.

Section 98-42 does in fact provide for the Town issuing a business license to fortuneteller and other similar businesses provided that they are undertaken at a fixed location. We could therefore not pursue conviction of a crime for a business that is specifically approved by Town Code.

If you are interested in conducting this business in the Town, please visit our Planning & Zoning Department at 102 East Main Street to complete the business license application.

Maya has also spoken directly to Mr. Napier and now feels confident that Code 110-17 will be removed without a fight. Meanwhile Maya will continue to read in other venues such as the Mountain Mystic Trading Company and over the phone. She has not received any personal backlash nor have any of her Pagan supporters such as Elizabeth Tucker and family. Maya only hopes that this situation has raised enough awareness “to get the local community talking and thinking” about religious discrimination.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.