Update: A New Challenge to Tarot Reading in Front Royal Virginia

Heather Greene —  June 11, 2014 — 37 Comments

On May 11 we reported on a story in which Priestess Maya Sparks White was excused from reading Tarot in a store on Main Street in Front Royal, Virginia. During the process of researching her legal rights, Maya unearthed an antiquated town ordinance banning “strolling persons from pretending to tell fortunes or practice any so-called ‘magic art.'” She and several other local Pagans, then, made it their mission to have this antiquated ordinance removed.

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

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

In the following weeks Maya was assured by town officials that this particular code would be formally discussed. Town Attorney Douglas Napier told The Wild Hunt that Code 110-17 was “one of those century old laws that has long been forgotten” and that the Council was currently revising the entire Code in order to remove any “invalid, old and superficial provisions.” Town Manager Steven Burke sent a letter directly to Maya stating:

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.

Prior to Maya’s discovery, local residents and town officials, were unaware the Code existed. It played absolutely no role in her removal from the Main Street store. However, after learning of its existence and Maya’s intent, several citizens from Town Royal’s small but vocal conservative Catholic community began expressing their support for the Code.

The issue has now evolved into a larger public community dialog that no longer centers solely on Maya’s presence on Main Street. It has become a larger debate over the general practice of “magic arts” or Witchcraft within the town’s boundaries. As a result, there now rests an opportunity for conversation about modern cultural diversity and religious freedom.

May 27th, 2014 Front Royal Town Council Meeting from The Town of Front Royal on Vimeo.

On May 27 twelve pro-Code citizens attended a town meeting to voice their opinions. Three of these people spoke at the podium. The first speaker on topic is Jane Elliott (8:30) who compared tarot readers to bank robbers, prostitutes and drug dealers. She said, “What a calamitous door that is threatening to be opened.” She questioned the legitimacy of Maya’s claims to being a spiritual counselor and concluded that tarot reading is “one step from Vodou which is one step from Satanism.”

The second speaker, Manuel Vicennes, introduced the word “Witchcraft” calling their ancestors “smart” and the Code “well-thought out.” He asked the Council, “Do you stand for what is just and right?”

The third speaker, Elizabeth Poel, agreed calling the law “just and reasonable.” Like Elliott, she questioned Maya’s legitimacy wondering how someone offering spiritual counseling could ethically charge money for those services. She then suggested that Maya “get a real job.”

All three speakers were concerned that the town would once again live up to its 18th century nick name “Hell Town.” Elliott asked if the Council wanted Front Royal to become an “up and coming center for the black arts” living in a “bygone error of superstition.” Poel wondered what next: “Drug dens” and “bath houses?” She asked, “Which street would become the town’s “red light district?” Poel concluded that Code 110-17 was a “good law for this good town” adding that Shenandoah Valley is “host to many covens of witches.” Maya should go somewhere else to “ply her craft.”

After the speakers were finished, Mayor Timothy W. Darr addressed the attendees saying that Code 110-17 was not currently on the meeting agenda because they had just received these citizen complaints. He also noted that this particular Code conflicts with another one. The specifics and legalities of both need to be addressed before the Council could rule.

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

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

What is the other Code? As noted in the Town Manager’s letter to Maya, it is Code section 98-42 that “does in fact provide for the Town issuing a business license to fortuneteller[s] and other similar businesses provided that they are undertaken at a fixed location.”

In a recent Warren County Report article entitled Playing the Fool: the Tarot Debate, senior writer Roger Bianchini makes this very distinction:

What these citizens, fearful of an outbreak of Black Magic and Satanism in a community once known as Hell Town, are failing to understand is that the statute is essentially a ban on street peddling, with that peddling specified in this section as fortunetelling and other “magical” endeavors once associated with … [an] ethnic minority of central Europeans called Gypsies.

The article goes on to explain just what the Town Manager told Maya. Code 98-42 actually permits the practice of “magic arts” as long as it is in a stationary location with a proper business license. The code states:

For every license for a person engaged in business as a fortuneteller, clairvoyant, phrenologist, spirit medium, astrologist, hypnotist or palmist, there shall be paid a license tax of $400 a year.

The concerned pro-Code citizens appear to be aiming their arrows at the wrong town law. At the same time, these citizens have directed their discontent at the town’s beloved annual Wine & Craft festival which they deem inappropriate due to “lewd behavior,” public drunkenness and tarot readers. In her speech, Elliott said, “Is this what they meant by ‘Craft’?”

At the May 27 meeting the Mayor was clear that the Council would not consider these two particular Codes for a few more months. However at the very next meeting on June 9, a brief exchange between two town officials indicates that the Council has not entirely tabled the issue and is taking the debate seriously. Conservative Councilman Thomas H. Sayre asked if Town Attorney Napier had heard from anyone regarding the “t-reading issue.” Napier confirmed that he had indeed spoken directly with members of the Pagan and Heathen communities.

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

The antiquated town code 110-17 was not originally meant to derail anyone’s religious practice. As noted in the Warren County Report article, the Code was simply a protection from what was deemed fraudulent practice by roving charlatans – Gypsies or others. Considering both ordinances together, the town, historically speaking, has never been against Tarot and “the magical arts” but rather against the practice of fraud.

However times change and laws can show their age  As Maya had hoped, her work has become a catalyst to force the local “community into talking and thinking about religious discrimination” within a modern 21st Century context.

 

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.