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.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently the National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and has worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • peterdybing

    Great piece, I would like to make sure the impression that LLL being involved would make the issue “forcing” something. We at LLL are always focused on engaging education, compassion and mutual understanding as the preferred course of action. That being said, sounds like the situation is being handled well as is.

    • http://www.miraselena.com/ Heather Greene

      Thanks Peter for your comment. You are absolutely correct. LLL works in so many different ways – many of which are invisible to the greater community. Maya’s comment was not meant to imply otherwise.

      However after reading your comment I looked back at the way I presented her words and I can see how it might be taken as such. I edited the sentence to hopefully mitigate any misinterpretations of LLLs goals and service within the Pagan community.

    • Maya

      I apologize, I summarized too many thoughts in too few words, I did not mean to imply that Lady Liberty League would force something. As mentioned by kenofken below, this case doesn’t seem to lend itself to civil rights actions. I do want to enlighten folks (The Bullies of Main Street) that it is a religious tolerance issue . . . I am open to more options for strategies.

      • peterdybing

        Maya, as it said, it sounds like this is being managed in a very positive and productive manor. My comment was just a minor clarification

  • Z54

    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.”

    In other words, “The Laying of Hands/Faith Healing would be forbidden by this ordinance”!

    • Marybeth Pythia Witt

      Unless those doing the “laying-on” receive no compensation. Simiilarly, one could have a sign saying “Donations Only” accepted, thus falling out of the purview. Just a thought.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    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.

    This made me very happy. The kids are, as they say, alright.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      It also showed just how easy resolutions can be, with a bit of communication.

  • Shayna Orsen

    After reading this article I have to say my first thought was of joy that those involved wish to use this unfortunate circumstance to educate those who don’t know any better.

    Nowadays when the typical person run into this kind of issue their first impulse is to fight, and we all know that doesn’t get us anywhere.

    I really feel patience and education are the only ways to battle this foe, it’s heart warming to see this works.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I was happy to see how it was handled in the local newspaper without bias. Now to watch what happens during the next council meeting and if there will be any organized resistance to removing the ordinance.

  • https://thedesertview.wordpress.com/ Desert Freyja

    This is a lovely example of making change while assuming the best in everyone, although it’s sad that some people can’t simply walk by a Tarot reading if it’s not to your taste. I walk by the Dianetics folks offering me a stress test without trying to force them out of whatever event they’re in, or people offering to tell me about Jesus, and they’re a lot more persistent than someone hanging a shingle for their services.

  • Joseph

    This isn’t a particularly good bit of news. The law wasn’t used to force Ms. Sparks out of the store and can’t be enforced anyway (and courts around the country have struck down similar laws in recent years). Removing it from the books will have zero impact on Ms. Sparks’ ability to read Tarot in the shop on Main Street. Nothing has actually been *done* here, and the original problem still remains.

    • kenofken

      That is true. I don’t think fixing the legal issue will change any minds either. Nobody was taking their cues in discrimination from an archaic and forgotten town code.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I disagree. Public repudiation of the law would take some wind out of the sails of the haters.

        • ELNIGMA

          IA, most areas in the US don’t have a large base of self-described “militant Catholics”

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            A lot of areas of the country have evangelical Protestants with the same attitude toward us.

          • ELNIGMA

            true. Funny how “conservative” is code for “bigoted” & “intolerant”and the actions end up the same, even when the religions don’t think themselves at all similar and are sometimes antagonistic

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Their attitudes toward us go back to their common root.

          • ELNIGMA

            Front Royal’s really a lovely town and the people friendly and nice, other than the extremists.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            It only takes a few asshats to spoil things.

        • kenofken

          It’s good she got that clarified, but it doesn’t sound like her opponents were even aware of the law and weren’t trying to invoke it in any way. It doesn’t seem like they were trying to have her outlawed, but basically just bullied one property manager into not hosting her service anymore. This isn’t one of those civil rights issues that lends itself to anti-discrimination lawsuits or campaigns. It can really only be addressed by the reader’s customers and other locals. They would have to convince the downtown mall manager that demand for her services and/or the values of tolerance represented more dollars than those who implied boycotts etc. Conservative devout Catholics or Evangelicals are not going to reconsider their position on “the occult” because of this legal change. It might provide landlords and mall operators a small degree of political cover by being able to say “we take no position on the validity of Tarot or associated beliefs. “(Fill in the name), is a licensed entertainment/service business.”

          • Maya

            I think everyone’s comments are helpful, each having a different perspective of the situation. I do feel that my approach has been constructive so far, however, it doesn’t feel resolved for me personally. I feel I need to either write Brooklyn and/or talk with her. (I had tried to talk with her after she left her voicemail firing me. I called her back but her voicemail was full and she didn’t pick up when I called so I gave up.) I do wish she had realized that she could have gained as many–or more–new customers as she would have lost, if she had stood strong against the pressure.

            Customers do have a right to boycott. However, I have a friend who says Brooklyn was bullied and that we must stand up to Bullies and discuss the issues with them. If I can’t find out who the Bullies are, I may try to get my letter to the editor printed, it is written for them. Also, people in Spiral Grove are fantasizing having a pagan event down on
            Main Street, there is a cute little park with a gazebo. ;-) We will see. Thanks for the ideas and support.

          • Marybeth Pythia Witt

            Strength and support from all of us who honor what the Goddess on our Eastern shore represents. I ask that She in whom you live in Service to, shield you from any unkindness being sent your way. The Scorpio Full Moon deals with the power and resources of others. May the current work with you. At least a million of us out here care about what happens to you. May you, your Gift, and good fortune Blessed Be! Lady Pythia Sidhe

  • ELNIGMA

    Front Royal’s got Catholics that think every change since Vatican II was entirely evil. I have no idea why groups like that consider themselves Roman Catholic when they generally consider every Pope that doesn’t have a heresy execution squad too liberal. They want to live in another century. Hence the threats, and since they’re funded, the worry some might have about the threats. “Conservative” is understatement. Not surprised at all by this story.

  • Kei Dallmer

    Not only a silly law, but racist at that!

  • Witchy Echoes

    Wicca is a Religion and WE ALL HAVE FREEDOM OF RELIGION…no different that holding Rosary beads at a Catholic Mass and reciting something on each bead…she just replaced the beads with cards <3

  • Dana Eilers

    The ordinance only says that any company of gypsies or other strolling company may not tell fortunes for profit. Maya is neither a *company* not is she a *gypsy* nor is she a *strolling company of gypsies* nor is she *strolling* nor is she a *strolling company. She is a solitary holy woman in an established location. She is no different from a priest hearing confession or offering counseling. I would argue that what she has been doing at this store front does not fall within the purview of the ordinance and is perfectly legal. That being said, it appears to me that the store has caved to public pressure.–Attorney Dana D. Eilers. author of PAGANS AND THE LAW: UNDERSTAND YOUR RIGHTS