Fortune Telling, The Law, and Pagans

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 25, 2014 — 27 Comments

There have been, generally speaking, two primary reasons why fortune telling and other divinatory services are banned in a town or city. The first reason is to address concerns about fraud, about individuals running cons to bilk the gullible out of their money. The second reason is about religion, specifically in America, the Christian prohibition against (some forms of) divination. Often these two threads will conjoin, sometimes inflamed by prejudices against minorities who have engaged in divination to make money (the Roma, for example). In our modern era, these laws have been increasingly challenged by those who believe it limits free speech, or the free exercise of religious beliefs.

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Tarot cards.

Because many Pagans, Polytheists, occultists, practitioners of Afro-Caribean or indigenous faiths, and other fellow travelers, study, use, and sometimes sell divinatory arts, this site has taken a keen interest in how challenges to these ordinances (not to mention the creation of new ordinances)  might affect our own lives. The current trend has been towards regulating fortune-telling shops to “red light” districts, along with the strip clubs and pawn shops, since the courts have been largely favoring divination as a form of protected speech, making total bans hard to defend. Back in 2010 I interviewed Rachel Pollack, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the modern interpretation of the Tarot, who categorically rejected the need for regulating divination.

rachel_pollack“I do not see any need for such regulation. If people are using the guise of divination to defraud or steal from people I would think current laws cover that. It’s not divination that is a problem it’s con artists. If con artists pretend to be doctors in order to trick people out of large sums of money, should we be fingerprinting doctors? Con artists who pretend to be diviners are just the same.”

Pollack’s view isn’t shared by everyone who offers professional divination services, but I think her stance gets to the heart of something regarding the regulation of divination. That while fraud can be carried out in a myriad of ways, there’s a focus on tarot cards, crystal balls, and psychic services that seems to expose a cultural bias, despite the occasional high-profile fraud trial. This cultural bias was center stage recently in the town of Front Royal, Virginia, where the local town council have been moving forward to remove an old law against fortune telling.


“For decades, the town of Front Royal has had a code listed among its ordinances that bans  fortunetelling and the practice of magic arts. Understandably, the ban’s legality and use of offensive terms like “gypsies” has come under fire. More than 50 supporters and opponents showed up at a hearing last week to voice their concerns, after a local tarot card reader was allegedly asked to stop practicing her craft because it violates city code. The town council voted to remove the section of the code that prohibits fortunetelling and the use of offensive terms, but a second reading of the motion will be heard at their next meeting.”

However, opposition to removing the fortune telling ordinance took an ugly turn at a recent Town Council meeting, exposing a toxic nexus of both homophobia and fear of the religious other.

“Foes of repealing a ban on fortunetellers in Front Royal recently attacked a nonprofit group and claimed it supported pagans. The executive director of the Center for Workforce Development ended her silence this week by responding to the accusations, including one claiming the organization recruits youths into the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community through witchcraft. Arlene Ballou called the actions by a few people who recently spoke at a Town Council meeting in favor of keeping the ban on fortunetellers “disgraceful” and accused them and others of spreading misinformation about her organization. Ballou said she hopes to get a chance to speak to Town Council soon about the issue.”

The issue began when a Pagan, Maya White Sparks of The Spiral Grove, was asked to stop giving readings at a local shop due to complaints. In the aftermath of that incident, White then discovered there was an old anti-fortune telling ordinance on the books and started working to get it repealed.

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

That initiative, which was initially thought to be a quick and simple matter, soon became increasingly complex as it brought out a strong current of hostility towards the local Pagans who spoke out on the issue, with the predominantly Catholic opponents of the repeal heckling them at Town Council (it should be noted that Front Royal has a thriving Pagan community, and supports a metaphysical store).

“Addressing council as the last of 18 public hearing speakers, ordained Pagan Reverend Kelyla Spicer found herself being shouted down after giving her Middletown home address. Before she could continue someone in the crowd rose and yelled ‘Is this necessary?!?’ challenging Spicer’s right to speak […] Spicer disputed allegations by some that allowing [P]agan practitioners to operate legally in Front Royal would lead to general social descent into criminality and otherwise ‘un-Godly’ behavior, including the recruitment of children into a life of homosexuality.”

It was quite clear that opposition to repeal was seen through a starkly religious lens, with local Christian groups holding prayer sessions outside the government center, and anti-Pagan rhetoric being spewed inside by self-proclaimed Christians. 

“Do you want it to be your legacy that you are the ones who opened the door in this community to make Front Royal a haven for witchcraft, fortunetelling and other pagan practices? […] I guarantee you that no American family, religious or not, will want to raise their children next to a shop that sells fortunetelling, tarot cards, witchcraft and so forth.”

At the most recent council meeting the councilors seemed to be moving towards regulation and licensing, rather than just removing ordinance and being done with it. Legal council for the town referenced a recent 4th Circuit Court ruling that was covered here at The Wild Hunt, which says that local governments do have the right to regulate divination services in a reasonable manner. That said, officials of Front Royal should be careful, because that ruling also leaves a door open for divination performed within the scope of a religious service.

Cognizant that defining the borders between the personal and philosophical on one side, and the religious on the other “present[s] a most delicate question,” id. at 215, we conclude that Moore-King’s beliefs more closely resemble personal and philosophical choices consistent with a way of life, not deep religious convictions shared by an organized group deserving of constitutional solicitude. Yoder teaches that Moore-King must offer some organizing principle or authority other than herself that prescribes her religious convictions, as to allow otherwise would threaten “the very concept of ordered liberty.” Yet Moore-King forswears such a view when she declares that instead of following any particular religion or organized recognized faith, she “pretty much goes with [her] inner flow, and that seems to work best.”

For the foreseeable future (no pun intended), barring intervention from the Supreme Court in the United States, we’re most likely going to continue on the course we’ve been on. A mixture of unenforceable bans, a web of different (and sometimes arbitrary) regulations depending on where you live, and an undercurrent of fear of beliefs and practices considered outside of a certain norm. The ban of fortune telling in Front Royal will be removed, and no doubt some licensing procedure enacted, as it has been in other towns, but what’s important here is what we’ve learned about why some of these laws persist. That in places like Front Royal it isn’t about fraud, or con-artists, it’s about control. Control not only over what kind of businesses can exist, but control over what kind of belief systems can exist.

Be sure to check out the previous installments in our coverage of this repeal effort:

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • “…it’s about control. Control not only over what kind of businesses can exist, but control over what kind of belief systems can exist.”

    Exactly. Especially when they say something like this: “Moore-King must offer **some organizing principle or authority other than herself** that prescribes her religious convictions, as to allow otherwise would threaten “the very concept of ordered liberty.” Actually I would consider choosing my beliefs for myself to be the very definition of religious liberty! Whatever they mean by “ordered” is another matter.

    I would agree with Pollack; we already have laws against fraud that can be used. Any singling out of divinatory practices is just prejudice, plain and simple. We cannot allow our religions and their practices to be defined by Christian standards. Most of our religions don’t have a hierarchy or “authority” and IMO that’s a good thing. We see the same kind of prejudice against the Maetreum of Cybele: their building is “not religious,” but no one blinks an eye at a nunnery or a monastery.

    Regardless of what you may think about a particular divinatory practice, the bottom line is that someone is providing a service, for which their time and knowledge is being paid for. Such practices are not automatically fraudulent just because they fall outside of what the mainstream considers “acceptable,” or what the majority belief system considers a “false belief.”

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      The core difference between the Maetreum of Cybele and this case is that Catskill evidently thinks it is protecting its tax base, while Front Royal is bowing to the forces of overt prejudice with the usual lack of backbone local politicians exhibit in such matters.Once again TWH is a primary journalistic resource on the Pagan civil liberties front. Kudos, Jason.

  • LesAnn620

    Aww, but I would love to live next to a shop that sells tarot cards and pagan items!

  • Charles Cosimano

    What would be fun would be to open a shop selling magickal arts and then demonstrate to the poor fools who object how well they work. There is always the Vitellius Solution.

  • Diana Lynne

    I believe if psychics didn’t charge people money to help them, they may not be under such fire by the Christians. I myself feel we are given a gift and should help people with it without asking for money. I have a regular job, and I help people when I can. I don’t rely on giving readings to support me. This gift is spiritual and should be treated that way. We are not doctors or lawyers. We are Spiritual. We should not charge.

    • Merlyn7

      I just couldn’t disagree more. Why do all the ministers in the country get paid by their congregations? Shouldn’t they have to have real jobs and then donate their extra time to preaching about their spiritual beliefs?

      When you pay for a reading you aren’t paying for their gift, you are paying for their time. A fortune teller’s time is just as valuable as a plumber’s, a doctor’s, or an accountant’s.

      • Actually, many ministers in the ‘non-denominational’ community are paid, but not nearly enough to live on, and they do have “real world” jobs.

        • Merlyn7

          And many diviners have day jobs as well. Why is the ministers’ speech protected speech and fortune-telling unprotected?

          • kenofken

            It comes down to their own organization and identification as a church vs a business. The fortune-teller’s speech is protected, as we’ve seen in the court rulings striking down bans on their work. It doesn’t get them the same protections from zoning laws and other regulations that churches/religious organizations have.

    • So, to make the Christians feel better psychics should refrain from charging money for readings? Perhaps we all should stop calling ourselves Pagans and/or Witches, as well, so then we may not come under such fire from the Christians, now would we? Or better yet, perhaps we should all just go back into hiding, stop trying to exercise our right to worship our gods as we choose, and start going back to Church, too, so then we may not come under such fire from the Christians.

      Why is it always US who should have to compromise what we do and what we believe in order to placate “the Christians?” And do you *really* think it is merely the charging of a few dollars for services rendered that is drawing Christian fire as opposed to centuries of hatred, bigotry and intolerance for anything non-Christian?

      Whether someone is charging money for divination readings is not the point (although I do not believe there is anything even remotely wrong with being compensated for one’s time and services rendered.) nor is it why some people in this town, and elsewhere, are so vehemently opposed to the lifting of this ban. It is religious bigotry plain and simple.

      • kenofken

        I couldn’t care less about trying to win Christian approval, but there is an underlying legal truth to what she says. When you operate as a business rather than a church/religious entity, you’re vulnerable to a much stricter set of regulations. Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, municipalities have to use a VERY light touch in applying zoning restrictions to churches. With businesses, they can essentially zone them to extinction.

        Yes, there is the parallel to Christian ministers getting paid for their work, but the difference comes in how they are paid. Professional fortune tellers, so far as I have ever seen, are a straight up fee-for-service model. They also don’t look or act like churches as far as articulating a particular theology or making the read a central sacrament of some sort or seeking converts or holding services etc. There’s nothing wrong with charging for fortune telling services, but so long as that’s the model, they will always have a tougher time with zoning than religious entities.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          I don’t know what it is like in the US, but in the UK, whilst (CofE) ministers receive a stipend, along with tied accommodation and certain expenses, they also charge for certain services, such as marriages and funerals.

          The question, I guess, is not whether the fortune tellers should be paid, but whether their services count as religious or otherwise.

          • Deborah Bender

            A typical (not universal) arrangement in the U.S. is that ministers provide all sorts of religious services gratis for members of their congregation but charge fees to officiate wedding ceremonies, etc. to people not affiliated with the congregation. Members of the congregation usually give it ongoing financial support, which covers the minister’s salary.

            Some ministers don’t have a congregation, and if their aim is to make a living at it, they charge for most of their services, or they are employed by some institution other than a church.

    • Lizsbet

      “I myself feel we are given a gift and should help people with it without asking for money […] This gift is spiritual and should be treated that way. ”

      Unfortunately, there are several huge problems with your argument… Most have already admonished you on the idea of spiritual clergy not needing to be paid, so I’ll go at it from another angle.

      First of all, I do not use any form of the Divine to fuel my divination ke a lot of readers I know. Secondly, I do not believe Divination is a gift, or that it is even minutely spiritual, nor do I view my Precognizance and Clairvoyance (or even my other abilities) to be “gifts”.

      I view divination as a skill. As a skill, it is one that cannot get better without practice. You may have a natural talent with it- as some people do with other skills- but you still have to learn and practice it memorize signs and symbolism, find methods that work for you, etc. As a skill, it can be learned by anyone who chooses to pick up one of the many tools available to them for various methods.

      Now… I’m Clairvoyant and Precognitive. I naturally, by some odd combination of genetics, have the ability for future sight. The problem is that this future sight comes in dreams, and in this state I cannot manipulate the vision to show me what I need to see (which is different than “what I want to see”, mind you) to make it more understandable, helpful, etc.

      Through the various tools of divination and a steady, well practiced skill of omens, symbols, and the interpretation of these methods, I can focus this natural and already existing (within myself) ability to garner more direct and relevant information than I would otherwise have if my natural precognizance was left to wander around on it’s own two feet and show me things willy-nilly.

      Taking this into account- the fact that I use it to channel, hone, and focus my already innate- non divine,non spiritual- abilities… And the fact that I was not “given the gift” of divination, but that it is a skill I have spent countless hours, days, and even years studying and learning…… There’s a fundamental flaw in the “but it’s a divine gift and it’s spiritual and you shouldn’t charge for using your gifts to provide services to others”.

      We pay artists. We pay chefs. We pay Architects. We pay fashion designers. We pay musicians. We pay Comedians. We even pay Clergy members of other religions…. We pay thousands upon thousands of people- both with finely tuned skills AND natural talent- to provide us with services that are sometimes concrete (a dress, or a new house) and sometimes not-so-concrete (happiness, or a good laugh)….

      Why should I not ALSO get paid for the time I spent honing a SKILL of mine, and then providing you with a service that takes time out of my day (among other resources) to provide to you- whether or not you are coming to me for spiritual or mundane guidance and advice?

      • Deborah Bender

        I am a person of average psychic ability. I learned to read Tarot cards in college. I had only one experience reading for pay, as a fill in reader at a Renaissance Faire when the veteran readers were taking breaks. That one day of reading for the fee-paying public taught me things that I had not learned (or even been aware that I needed to learn) in decades reading for friends: how to do several readings in a row without drying up, how to keep my aura separate from the querent, how to avoid emotional identification with the querents and their problems, how to deal with onlookers, how to give cold readings, and so forth. If I had kept up the professional readings, I’m sure my skills as a reader would have improved quickly.

      • Well, to be truthful, there are plenty of folks who would like to never pay artists, either. (And they get quite creative in their attempts to weasel out of it.) But yes, artists, diviners, lawyers, architects, *should* all be paid for their time and skill. If you wouldn’t dream of asking your accountant to work for free, then why are you asking someone else to?

        The practice I was taught also uses the energy exchange — not necessarily money for services, but *something* — as a necessary aspect to clearly define the relationship between diviner and client, such that the diviner is NOT attempting to circumvent the client’s free will regarding their life choices. If nothing else it’s a reminder that the client is taking responsibility for her/his own choices, including the one to ask someone for advice.

  • Deborah Bender

    Jason, you have used that Celtic Cross spread graphic several times before, and it’s always oriented to the view of the person being read for. Any chance of posting it right side up next time?

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I have a friend in the area and the interesting thing is the Catholics really seem to believe the stuff that they are saying, really have that level of fear.


      There are members of an extreme type of Catholicism found near Front Royal. They have no respect for other religions, other Catholics, any Pope since Pius VII. Or even the Priest in their local church – since one of my relatives was there for Mass one time and one of the members of the extreme yelled up at the Priest over what bible passage he’d chosen to read and I don’t think that was the first time their group had probably been obnoxious. They’re ornery and hateful, and not about what a lot of people view Christianity to be about.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      If nothing else, it is nice to see people with religious conviction, I guess…

  • Roi de Guerre

    Jason said the ban on fortune telling would be removed. It was:

    It’s almost like it was “in the cards”.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Heavens! Four state legislators came up with some backbone…

  • Thank you for this article, Jason, and for keeping us updated on developments regarding this issue.

    A minor nitpick, if you don’t mind, re. the sentence: “It was quite clear that opposition to repeal was seen through a starkly religious lens, with local Christian groups holding prayer sessions outside the government center, and anti-Pagan rhetoric being spewed inside by self-proclaimed Christians. [Emphasis added]

    One of the things that makes me grit my teeth is reading media pieces that make reference to “self-described Wiccans” or “self-identified Pagans.” Perhaps I’m growing cranky in my old age, but I read those qualifiers as unnecessary, patronizing, and to some extent dismissive. My mental response tends to be, “Would you describe the Pope as a ‘self-proclaimed Catholic?’ No, you would not.”

    Not meant as a criticism, just an observation. Submitted FWIW.

    • PhaedraHPS

      A journalist once explained to me that the media will use “self-proclaimed” or “self-identified” in cases where they believe the majority of their readers might think the reporter is using the description (Witch, Druid, gay, lesbian, whatever) in a negative, name-calling way, or in the case where many of their readers might not think such a category (Witches, Pagans, etc.) of contemporary people actually exists. “Hey, we didn’t make this up–they really call themselves that!”

      However, the sentence you highlight doesn’t seem to fit either of those situations; it does read as snarky or derogatory in the “no true Scotsman” sense.

      Yeah, Jason, you could do better on that one phrase.

      • Thanks for the clarification of that journalistic convention.

  • Well, gee, I don’t want to raise my (theoretical, these days) kids next to ANY shop. I’d also rather not raise them on the same block as most Christian churches.

  • Rev. Kelyla Spicer

    Update….Front Royal will be On The Edge On Fox….local channel 5 @11:00 PM EST