By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL -- A split Town Council took a step Monday after a heated public hearing to strike a ban on fortunetelling from the books.
Council voted 4-3 to pass a motion on a first reading to repeal the town code section that prohibits fortunetelling, "gypsies" and "magic arts." Councilmen Bret Hrbek, Eugene Tewalt and Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker voted in support of the motion. Councilmen Thomas Sayre, Hollis Tharpe and Daryl Funk voted against the repeal. Mayor Timothy Darr broke the tie. Council must hold a second reading for a repeal to take effect.
In making the motion, Hrbek became incensed over the comments made by some speakers and said he was "outraged by the whole conversation." The code section contains language Hrbek described as "pejorative and insulting" including "gypsies." He also criticized the law for stating that fortunetellers are "pretending" to tell the future.
"You and I, as Christians, may not agree with that practice," Hrbek said. "But for us to write in the law to say ... these are the facts, that is disturbing to me and it should be disturbing to every American who believes that we have liberty.
"I feel like we're in the movie Footloose but reversed where kids wanted to dance but the state said they couldn't and here we are, the folks in the community saying 'please impose our moral viewpoint on everyone else,'" Hrbek said.
Town Attorney Douglas Napier told the audience about recent court decisions deeming any such ban on fortunetelling as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech and expression. Napier said the town has not, to his knowledge, enforced the decades-old ban.
"I realize that these activities may make people feel uncomfortable," Napier said. "The courts have spoken. In my view Town Council's hands are tied."
More than 50 people attended the hearing and at least half the number gathered outside the Warren County Government Center to pray before the meeting. The crowd often applauded after each speaker. At times members of the audience spoke out of turn, prompting Darr to warn them to remain respectful.
Council heard support and opposition to the repeal. Several people who spoke in favor of striking the code section said they were raised or practicing Catholics
Elizabeth Poel asked council why it would take the action to benefit pagans -- a small part of the population. Poel suggested the town adjust the license fee for inflation to $2,987 by her calculations and include more questions on the business license application, she added. Poel also linked the thrift store on Main Street and the tarot-card reading operation to the Center for Workforce Development and its efforts to provide opportunities to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Poel said she surmised the center plans to recruit youth to increase the number of homosexuals in Front Royal.
"We do not advocate abuse or harm to any homosexuals," Poel said. "Such would be contrary to the virtue of charity. However, homosexuals do not usually extend such charity much less tolerance toward homosexuals who do not agree with them. You need to understand that most parents want neither pagan practitioners nor homosexuals to have access to the minds, bodies and souls of their children."
Poel told council a "strong connection" exists between homosexuality and paganism.
Claudia Post identified herself as a traditional, practicing Roman Catholic but noted that she had seen a fortuneteller in the past.
"I don't think we should go against anybody, tell them they can't practice something because you can often go the right way even if you start off wrong, and I don't think it's the place of anything in America to restrict that freedom," Post said.
Thomas Centrella spoke against the repeal and warned that the presence of fortunetelling would cause crime to increase in town.
"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?" Centrella asked council. "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."
Linnette Nicholas, of Stephens City, spoke in support of the repeal and responded to some of the previous speakers.
"All that I've heard is just total judgment against witchcraft," Nicholas said. "You know there are abominations within the Catholic Church and within the other religions that happened and we're not focusing on that and condemning people for being Catholic. We're only wanting to practice our spirituality."
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org