By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL -- The debate over fortunetelling in Front Royal continued Monday as town leaders discussed regulating the practice.
Town Council reached a consensus at a work session on proposed changes to a different code section that allows Front Royal to charge a fee with a business license required to practice fortunetelling. However, some council members and area pagans question some of the language in the section.
Council voted 4-3 last week to approve on first reading a motion to remove the code section that bars the practice of fortunetelling or the "magic arts" and includes the term "gypsy." Council takes up the matter on a second reading at its next regular meeting.
Town Attorney Douglas Napier reminded council that the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Virginia, rendered an opinion in a case out of Chesterfield County also dealing with fortunetelling or a person who offers spiritual guidance services. The court ruled a municipal government can charge a license tax on the practice of fortunetelling, Napier said.
Other courts have said a tax of $1,000 amounted to a de facto ban on the practice, but a $300 levy was permissible. The town currently charges $400 - a levy some pagans have said is too high. Napier didn't give a recommendation on whether or not council should stick with $400 or reduce the fee to $300.
Council members eventually directed town staff to schedule a public hearing on the revisions to the code section as proposed by Napier. The attorney will work on the minor revisions to comply with state code. The public hearing likely will be held at the end of September.
Councilman Thomas Sayre had a concern that someone might ask for donations rather than charge outright for the services as a way to avoid paying the license tax, the attorney said. Napier recommended that council include language in the code section to require a person pay the tax if he or she receives any payment contemporaneous with providing the services, even if given as a donation.
Councilman Eugene Tewalt suggested members make changes to the code section, eliminate "pretend" to tell fortunes and lower the license fee.
"I'd like to see it moving forward, get it off the books and get on with the rest of our problems," Tewalt said.
Mayor Timothy Darr asked Napier if the town would open itself up to legal challenges if Front Royal charged a business-license fee to anyone accepting donations.
"The reason I say that is I don't think we're going to be overrun by fortunetellers," Tewalt said.
Sayre attempted to have council send the matter to the Planning Commission for its review and to hear its recommendation. Sayre said he wanted to include this action as an option when council takes up the matter at its next meeting. Councilman Daryl Funk sided with Sayre. But most members of council questioned why the commission would need to review the proposed changes to the code section. Darr and others said this did not involve any changes to the town zoning regulations.
"It's a stretch," Darr said. "I'm not feeling it."
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org