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Virginia Town Challenges Tarot Shop Owners First Amendment Rights
By: Gaia Staff | April 26th, 2018
When Mark Mullins opened a new age retail store in rural Virginia, he offered free tarot readings to attract customers, until the city informed him he was violating zoning laws. Now, Mullins finds himself embroiled in a battle with the city, accusing the council of pandering to religious zealots and impinging on his first amendment right of protected speech.
Mullins and his partner, Jerome VanDyke, own Mountain Magic and Tarot in downtown Richlands, Virginia. A six-year resident of the community, Mullins became interested in tarot as a teenager, saying his love for heavy metal sparked an interest in mysticism and the occult.
“I just wanted to read anything I could find on magic,” Mullins told Gaia in a recent interview. “It was the first thing I became obsessed with and it’s lasted 30 years.”
Mullins and VanDyke are the first openly gay couple to open a business in the rural, and overwhelmingly Christian town, admitting they sometimes face discrimination. But the two don’t seem phased by the occasional bigotry; instead they say local residents take greater issue with misconceptions surrounding the nature of their trade.
Richlands is a small, quiet community in the southwestern corner of the state, with a population of just over 4,000 residents. Prominently displayed on the town’s website is its motto, “The center of a friendly circle.” It touts itself as being one of the most peaceful towns in the state, and promotes its annual “Freedom Festival.”
But despite the city’s ostensible commitment to liberty and American values, Mullins and VanDyke said they experienced resistance from the town council the moment they applied for their business permit. Initially denying the couple, the town withheld any specific reasons for its refusal, until Mullins and VanDyke threatened a lawsuit.
Eventually, the city gave in, though it wasn’t long before it ordered police to stop the couple from reading tarot in their store – a move, they say, that was politically and religiously motivated.
“There was not one person who had any concrete reason why we shouldn’t be able to read tarot, except those saying it was against God’s will,” Mullins said.
Mullins and VanDyke were told that, due to zoning laws, they weren’t allowed to read tarot in their store, despite the fact they weren’t charging for it. The couple was told they would have to apply for a proper zoning permit at the next town council meeting if they wanted to read cards. In the meantime, Mullins began to read tarot for customers on the sidewalk outside the store, a practice the town ironically had no issue with.
Leading up to the meeting, Mullins and VanDyke interviewed with a multitude of news outlets and publications, generating a media storm around the issue.
When the day came for Mountain Magic to apply for its permit, both supporters and detractors showed up to voice their opinions.
Proponents raised a number of concerns with the town’s refusal to rezone the store, including first amendment rights of protected speech, religious freedom, and business from out-of-towners visiting Mountain Magic. But pastors from Richlands and surrounding communities also showed up to weigh in on the issue.
“There were about 15 to 25 preachers there, who spoke their two or three minutes,” VanDyke said. “They talked about how the town was going to go to hell and that demonic portals were going to open up and steal the children. The only things that were missing were the stakes and the bonfire, otherwise it would have been Salem.”
Mullins and VanDyke defended their position, explaining that the religious community’s conceptions of tarot were misconstrued and based on irrational fears. They also presented the council with a petition containing 874 signatures from the community supporting Mountain Magic’s readings.
But the town’s Christian community remained unconvinced and continued to revert to antiquated and dogmatic principles, essentially confounding the shop’s practices with Satanism.
“I don’t really want my children thinking that’s ok if they go in there and they get confused and don’t know what something is,” one woman said, according to a transcript. “If we open that up in this area and we’re letting people go into this, will their blood be required of our hands?”
Proponents attempted to defend Mullins and VanDyke, explaining to the council that Mountain Magic wasn’t trying to corrupt the town’s children or even convert them to any religion. Instead, they were asking for the same first amendment freedoms given to local Christians. Others said religious concerns were entirely irrelevant.
“Every week, I’m approached for directions to their shop, so I do know that it is bringing in revenue,” a local business owner said, “while they’re here and they’re in town, they’re spending money on other businesses.”
In the end, the council refused to even vote on the issue, seeming to acquiesce to religious demands, despite an overwhelming presence of the shop’s advocates.
Tarot Reading and Fortune Telling as Protected Speech
While Mullins and VanDyke weren’t charging for tarot readings, it can be noted that the industry of fortune telling is one that is prone to charlatans and con-artists. There have been cases, some even leading to district appeals courts, in which customers of fortune tellers have been exploited or become victims of fraud.
But typically, these cases involve monetary gains or disputes between the city and a fortune teller over taxes or licensing fees. In the case of Mountain Magic, however, the readings were provided at no charge.
Since there was no exchange of money, a distinction should also be made between tarot card reading and fortune telling, despite the two being considered synonymous in business and legal jargon. Those unfamiliar with the practice might consider tarot to be a form of fortune telling, but most tarot readers believe there are important differences.
“Anyone connected with cards and divination will tell you that it’s just a mirror,” Defne Oztek, an experienced tarot reader said. “The tarot reader is just someone who can read the cards – they’re a vessel for communication.”
Oztek says the meaning extracted from a tarot card reading is tantamount to prayers and spiritual learnings one would obtain from reading the bible.
“Christians should be able to relate to that, these are tools of hope,” she said. “This is my bible, the first thing I do when I have no one to turn to is to run and grab my deck. Tarot is supposed to teach people real messages of hope and opportunity.”
But the town’s decision seems to have nothing to do with zoning issues, despite its claim. Clearly listed on the town’s business license application is a section permitting for a Fortune Teller/Palmist.
The city’s mayor told a local news station, “each town has the right to zone as they see fit,” and that Mountain Magic could appeal the town’s decision at the next council meeting. Though the council’s refusal to vote on the issue shows its unwillingness to compromise or even address the issue outright.
And though the contention over Mountain Magic’s tarot readings has been a headache for Mullins and VanDyke, they say business has picked up and that they’ve signed a two-year lease at a new location in town. For now, Mullins continues to read tarot on the street as long as there is demand among Richlands residents and the city allows it.
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