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RICHLANDS, Va. –There are places when practicing openly as Pagan is not at all difficult, but there remain communities in which engaging in anything with a whiff of the esoteric or the unusual is met with stiff resistance. Richlands, Virginia appears to be one of the latter. 

Richlands, Vir. [Courtesy Virginia’s official tourism site]

Richlands is a town of less than 5,000 people in the southwestern part of the state and, at a glance, it seems to be the sort of place where Christian values are held in high regard at least when anything perceived as threatening their supremacy is proposed.

What’s causing the recent ripples through this small community is the presence of Mountain Magic and Tarot Shop. which has become a gathering place for Pagans who previously practiced in solitude and in hiding.

Proprietors Jerome VanDyke and Mark Mullins are open about being Witches as well as being happily married to each other. With religion being protected under the U.S. Constitution and their marriage being legal per the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, VanDyke and Mullins believe they’ve tweaked some noses simply by living their lives and opening a business that reflects their values.

In response to their presence, locals have challenged their right to provide tarot readings on the grounds that it’s not an allowed use in their shop under the local zoning code. There have been several feints and parries over this issue in recent months, but on Feb. 13 the pair will be formally asking that “fortune teller/palmist” be added to the use table for the B-2 zone in Richlands.

Fortune-telling — divination — is frequently seen as a suspicious activity, one that is prone to fraud. For this reason some Pagans refuse to accept payment for readings, although others consider it a necessary exchange of energy. The practice is banned under the terms of many merchant agreements and on some online shopping platforms, and there are laws outright forbidding the practices in many locales.

As many Pagans and polytheists regard divination a part of their religious practices, those laws run afoul of first-amendment protections in the United States, as the leaders of Front Royal were advised by their attorney in 2014. Many such laws are also viewed as discriminatory, having been passed to target particular ethnic groups.

VanDyke and Mullins are dealing with such a general ban. In Richlands, fortune-teller are restricted under the zoning code, a set of rules which are used to determine the types of activities which may be conducted on a given parcel of land.

That’s different than the situation faced by Maya White Sparks in 2014, when she discovered that reading cards in Front Royal, Virginia was out-and-out illegal according to an old statute that most residents didn’t even know was on the books.

Despite Front Royale’s town attorney advising that similar laws had been found unconstitutional, the fight to repeal that law was “hard-won,” said Sparks. At that hearing, residents testified that reading tarot is a gateway to prostitution, devil worship, and “all kinds of criminal activity.” Town officials “grudgingly” voted to repeal, with four votes for and two against.

Mullins and VanDyke explained the odd situation that they’re facing in Richlands. Their business license lists tarot reading as an example of what’s acceptable. However, town officials have advised that it is not legal at their particular location because it is not listed in the use table, the guide that building inspectors and planning officials use to determine what’s allowed.

In fact, nowhere in Richlands is tarot reading in the zoning. They thought at first that doing the readings for free would be acceptable, but two visits by police officers disabused them of that notion.

Town manager Tim Taylor — who was out of the office due to a medical condition when contacted this week — told a reporter for SWVA Today in October, “We’re not in the business of what you charge people; it’s the activity of what you’re doing.”

In a curious twist, Mullins and VanDyke determined that while they can’t give readings inside the shop, doing so on the sidewalk out front is perfectly legal. Doing so made the activities more visible and, in their opinions, more upsetting to opponents, some of whom will shout obscenities while driving by or leave literature about the Christian devil taped to store windows. While that behavior has since tapered off, rumors of sacrifices being performed at the shop have also circulated.

Town council members “asked if we would stop reading on the sidewalk if we change the zoning,” said Mullins, who believes that the outdoor divination is “more embarrassing” to local officials. While both proprietors read the cards, Mullins gives most readings at the shop, and has likened the ban on telling a Christian not to use the Bible.

Mark Mullins reads tarot on sidewalk in front of Mountain Magic [courtesy].

What’s quite clear is that there is organized opposition to tarot reading in Richlands right now, despite there being a history of fortune-tellers practicing in the town. A meeting called for Jan. 9 had the subject on the agenda, and the shop owners were unable to get any information about its purpose.

They asked the cards, and were advised not to attend. They understand members of some local churches showed up in droves to speak about the evils of divination.

“This is a town where they ask everyone to stand for a Christian prayer at the beginning of meetings,” said VanDyke. “We don’t.”

Not all Christians in Richlands take that position, and the pair are happy to point out that some of their monotheistic neighbors are friendly and welcoming. They also note that “everyone can remember” other fortune-tellers who have practiced in town, although none of them were known to be Pagan.

On Feb. 13, VanDyke and Mullins have to attend because it’s their request being considered. Again, leaders of some local churches are organizing for a packed house, but this time the Pagans might also be coming out in force. The pair said that they were “blown away” when they realized just how many Pagans there are in rural West Virginia, some of whom have to travel 100 miles to visit Mountain Magic.

It’s an important issue to the shop owners, because even when they were offering readings for free it got people into the shop, and as they waited their turn they often bought merchandise. They believe they have lost business due to being unable to read. Legalizing the readings would bring additional expense, and when Mullins asked on the shop’s Facebook page if customers would pay $25, the response was positive. However, a crowdfunding campaign to cover legal fees has languished.

“It’s going to be like Jerry Springer,” Mullins said of the upcoming public hearing.

We will have an update on this story after the hearing.