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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.

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“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: