By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL -- Town leaders probably didn't predict the buzz a decades-old ban on fortunetellers and "gypsies" would create.
But council on Monday again got an earful about the town law -- this time from two women who say the rule discriminates against pagans and practitioners of "Earth-based" beliefs. A few weeks ago council heard from residents who warned that Main Street would become a haven for Satanism and the black arts should the town not enforce the law on the books or remove the rule entirely.
Town code states that it "shall be unlawful for any company of gypsies or other strolling company or person to receive compensation or reward for pretending to tell fortunes or to practice any so-called 'magic art.'" The code classifies any violation of the section as a misdemeanor offense punishable by one to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.
The Rev. Kelyla Spicer, of Meadow Branch Road, Middletown, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. She described herself to council as a Celtic druid and pagan, but not a gypsy.
"I am here because a group of people are being mislabeled," Spicer said.
Spicer called the law illegal, discriminatory and degrading to pagans.
"It is obviously written from somebody's religious point of view and the mentioning alone, not just for the gypsies, but adding magical arts to the statement, have brought in over 200 different pathways," Spicer said.
The Rev. Esmeralda Barnes, of Leesburg, echoed Spicer's concerns. Barnes said she has counseling clients in Front Royal.
The town law "contains insidious, ignorant and racist language that has no place in a country laying claim to being home of the free, including the freedom to practice the religion of one's choice, not the religion of a majority's choice," Barnes said.
The debate over the law should also lead to people learning more the issues, Spicer said.
"We are not Satanists," Spicer said. "We're not bad people."
Spicer told council that she and others who practice Earth-based beliefs are part of the community and get involved with beneficial initiatives. They also are taxpayers, business owners and voters, she said.
A couple of council members responded to Spicer and Barnes. Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker pointed out that a previous council put the law on the books decades ago.
"I don't think you'll find anyone on this council who doesn't agree that there is some defamatory and discriminatory language in that section of code, which we should take care of," Parker said. "But it was written in a much different time."
Parker added that council tries to rectify matters such as these when brought to their attention. Parker thanked Maya White Sparks for first bringing the section to council's attention weeks ago. Sparks had been reading tarot cards in the back of a downtown business but the owner banned her from the shop when customers complained.
Councilman Bret Hrbek agreed that some terms in the law, especially gypsies, are derogatory to some groups of people and the language should be removed. Council should rewrite the law to better reflect its intended purpose of restricting peddlers from selling their wares without proper approval, Hrbek said.
Town Manager Steve Burke and Town Attorney Douglas Napier have said that Front Royal has not, in recent memory, enforced the law.
State law allows the town to require anyone who runs a business as a fortuneteller to obtain a business license and to pay the required fee. The town charges $400 for such a license.
Spicer told council she feels vendors on the street should pay a tax and obtain a business license. But a fortuneteller working out of a person's business should be allowed to do so, she said.
After the meeting and outside the Warren County Government Center, Spicer and Barnes said council members' comments did not quell their frustration. Instead, Barnes and Spicer took the comments to mean that council members want to revisit and rewrite the law, not to strike it from the code.
Napier said earlier Monday before the meeting that he expects council to take up the topic at a work session in the near future.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org