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.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Pool halls!? Shades of The Music Man

    • Sorry Baruch. I removed the term “Pool Hall” because the Poel actually didn’t say that. I misinterpreted my own notes on her speech. The rest appears to be correct. Thanks for the comment.

      • Joseph

        Since it was outside the quotes, I assumed it was a deliberate attempt to be funny. And as such, it was. 🙂

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Saw that one coming.

  • Raynebird Dragonwyke

    xtians ALWAYS outnumber pagans anywhere you go in the united states, if they’re having problems in their tiny little special town maybe they should be looking a little closer to home than into the pagan community there. geeze what a bunch of suspicious, superstitious, hard ass, puritans. ugh!!!!!

  • Johnson Davis

    They keep saying priests and ministers don’t charge fees. What do they think a salary is? More money changes hands in local Churches in one day than does in 10 years of fortune teller booths at local festivals. Hope this settles out sanely with the old law struck.


    When was Front Royal called Hell Town and overrun with witches? Sounds fascinating!


      Aww.. read on Wiki it was called that because of people going there, getting drunk and fighting, not because of witches or tarot readers.

      But for me, that “Helltown” was an amusing fiction while it lasted

  • Charles Cosimano

    The wisest course is to ignore the law, let them try to enforce it and then nail them on first amendment.

  • Chris H.

    I wish her the best of luck with the council’s ruling. Hopefully they will see that they live in a diverse society and these outdated laws are badly in need of re-writing.

  • Tikalok

    Yea Maya. Thanks for bringing us further into the light. Narrow minded people really bug me.

  • Deborah Bender

    That’s small town life for you. People flock to cities partly for economic opportunities and partly because there are vocal people in most small towns who think they are entitled to control the behavior of their neighbors.

    The U.S. law on this matter was settled decades ago, circa 1980 IIRC. I remember this because Z. Budapest lost her case to read Tarot for pay in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, before the Supreme Court ruled.

    The Supremes ruled that laws forbidding fortunetelling for money are inherently discriminatory, because they aren’t applied to economic advisors and other secular professionals who who claim to be able to predict future events for pay. Laws to prevent fraud have to be written in a way that does not target particular cultural, religious or ethnic groups. Zoning and licensing regulations have to be written and enforced evenhandedly or they violate the First Amendment.

    Before the mid 1960s, cities and towns used a host of laws to exclude, control or move along types of people that they considered undesirable: vagrancy laws, Sunday Blue laws, restrictive covenants on house sales, laws against cross-dressing in public, etc. In big cities the laws weren’t as strictly enforced because of corruption. Hence the view of small town dwellers that cities are dens of iniquity where anything goes. Most of those laws have been struck down as violations of equal rights.

    • Maya

      Thanks for this important info! I agree that mentioning gypsies in a code of law is another problem for the Town!

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I just sent this letter to the editor of the local paper.

    I had the curious experience of watching the videoMay 27th 2014 Town council meeting on the matter of Tarot reading and Witches and whatnot. It was curious to see such vicious religious bigotry on display in the 21st Century.

    I is curious also that none of those people were aware that the Supreme Court has already ruled against laws against fortune telling.

    I was also curious of their ignorance of the fact there is another law on the books in Front Royal that allowed fortune telling as long as it is fro a fixed spot. The law, they were aware of, was only against people traveling though, not local people

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      Good letter. But I have to raise a grammatical quibble:

      “I is curious”

      Surely that should read “I am curious”?

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        I do make mistakes as I did not catch that one. Darn Eglish teachers. [Grin] gramar is a weak spot.

    • Maya

      Thanks for writing to the paper, I think that is so important to do, to take advantage of the spotlight on our religion and discuss the discrimination that underlies our daily lives. I am tired of being treated as an “evil” or invalid because of my alternative spirituality and the more we bring it out of the shadows in a positive way, the better. I hope others write as well. Thanks!

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        I make a habit to do it when i can, not only here in America, but elsewhere. I try to think out my responses as it s important that our side always look like the reasonable ones. I wish you the best as you are on the front lines.

  • Sammie

    ONE STEP FROM VODOU WHICH IS ONE STEP FROM SATANISM????????? I just… wow… I do not even know where to start.

    • Maya

      I know . . . brings back past life memories of the Inquisition!

  • Helen McVey Kahn

    What if the Tarot reader was an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church? Would that be discrimination against a religious
    practitioner? Paganism is a religion isn’t it?

    • Maya

      Paganism is a broad term for what some may call “spiritual” and others call “religious,” nature-centered and magic traditions. Some pagan groups have organized themselves into churches and other nonprofits. The U.S. government has recognized paganism as religious in that they allow military pagans to meet on base and have their symbols on their graves.

  • Franklin_Evans

    I’ve been to Front Royal as a tourist, and I have friends who live in that area of VA. They are people, and their beliefs and attitudes cover the spectrum of such things in similar proportion to other places in the US.

    It’s a fact of human nature that we react to things according to our upbringing, our visceral reactions to details of them, and to our level of ignorance of them. Criticizing the people who spoke at that public hearing is shooting fish in a barrel, something I like to believe we as a group are better with than other groups.

    Alas, that is not so, but that is neither surprising nor to be criticized per se. It is, I would hope, the natural observation of any human being who makes the effort to look in the mirror before passing judgment on others.

    Am I narrow-minded because I find tattoos and piercing unattractive at best? If we insist on creating conflict out of differing choices — however those choices are motivated — we sabotage our efforts to be accepted in society-at-large on any level.

    • ChristopherBlackwell

      In a majority society minorities get judged by harsher standards than the majority. Almost always has been that minorities must be cleaner than clean.

    • Maya

      Yes, the Christians have as much right to speak as anyone — and we have a right to respond to statements that we know are false (because these statements are about ourselves). It is best not to condemn the speakers but rather to respond to the issues they bring up.

      • Franklin_Evans

        Rushing to make in-kind responses — the “give as good (bad) as I get” reaction — is understandable. It’s also almost always counterproductive. It requires an effort, sometimes more extreme than I consider worthwhile, to control that impulse and respond to the issues. I acknowledge that, I understand it, but it just shouldn’t be accepted as the primary response to denigrate, insult or dismiss.

        I make an analogy to bravery’s defintion by some: I’m still afraid, even terrified, but I act despite it. I feel the insults, the misinformation and lies, but I need to respond rationally and constructively despite it.

        Maya, I sincerely admire you for your efforts. Be well, Lady.

        • Maya

          Many thanks, and blessed be!

  • Tina

    Why should it matter what religion you believe or practice, the Christian were pagans once apon a time maybe they should worry about whats going on behind closed doors in there church and not what someone else believes are

    • kenofken

      You’ve never met any of them, have you? 🙂

  • Brandi

    Maya, thank you very much for reporting on this. Do you know when the council plans to discuss this? I am planning on moving to this area and am interested to see how this turns out.

    • Brandi

      I’m sorry! I meant Heather.

      • VoodooSatanistTarotReader

        Hey Brandi, when you get here look up the local multicultural store called Mountain Mystic Trading Company. You will find many cut from the same spiritual cloth and it will be like coming home.

  • Wolfsbane

    After Jane Elliott, Manuel Vicennes and Elizabeth Poel finished speaking, someone should have had the presence of mind to stand and ask the council to be sure to record the names of the people who spoke in favor of the existing discriminatory code.

    Suggest that they needed to do so that when the town inevitably lost this fight like other localities had lost similar fights recently based on the violation of civil rights laws, they could then initiate lawsuits against these individuals to recoup the money the town would lose fighting a losing battle. That there was no reason the whole populace should have to be on the hook for the loss.

    Give the bigots something to worry about.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      This is terribly tempting, but going in with an attitude that we’re harder-nosed than the opposition simply shifts the discussion onto their ground, which I’m uncomfortable with personally and at which the other side is more experienced anyway.

    • Raven Belote

      I haven’t watched the video, yet. But, just from reading the response Maya has received from the town council, and the response from their
      lawyer, it seems to me they are being very careful how they approach this, and what they say about it…as they should be. No doubt their lawyer already knows not to try and fight a court battle on something like this, especially when their laws already permit the reading of cards, and other metaphysical pursuits, for money, as long as a license is bought, and it’s a stationary business.

  • Jim MacDiarmid

    Idiots. People need to get their facts straight before comparing
    metaphysical practices like this to “Prostitution” not to mention
    “Satanism”. It has nothing to do with either. Grow up people! You would be surprised. There are a lot of Christian/Catholics that follow metaphysical practices and are true psychics.

    • CrazyHeathen

      I agree. Nice smile Jim.