Here’s an unusual religious freedom case. And — you’re not going to believe this — it involves Christians trying to shut down the religious freedom of someone who’s not a Christian.
Mark Mullins is a Tarot card reader in Richlands, Virginia who wanted to open up a business (Mountain Magic & Tarot Reading) in which he took money in exchange for offering readings to customers. We could have long discussion about how all of this is easily debunked pseudoscience, but the point is he had a product to sell and he had every intention of following the city’s rules.
This wasn’t just an act, either. Mullins said he and his husband Jerome VanDyke follow “Hermeticism.” Reading Tarot cards, then, is a central aspect of his religious beliefs. They even “refer to Tarot as their Bible.”
In a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Virginia, Mullins says town officials blocked him from opening up his business in part due to backlash from Christians in the community who didn’t want his “witchcraft” to open up some “demonic realm.” Whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.
Starting in June 2017, the town repeatedly rejected Mr. Mullins’ attempts to obtain a business license, at first claiming he needed to request an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance. When Mr. Mullins made such a request, the town held a public hearing in February 2018. At the raucous hearing, local residents and church leaders cited biblical scripture and warned that tarot reading is “evil” and “witchcraft” that would “open things up in this area to the demonic realm.”
Speakers also told officials they would suffer spiritual consequences if they allowed fortune-telling in Richlands. The lawsuit contends the town declined to amend the zoning ordinance to permit tarot reading based on townspeople’s hostility toward the practice of tarot, discriminating against the content of Mr. Mullins’ speech.
Perhaps the strangest thing in the lawsuit is that the town of Richlands’ business license application has a list of 19 options for the type of business it is, including retail merchant, contractor, and photographer. One of the options is literally “fortune teller/palmist.” Yet even then, they said he couldn’t open up his business. The Town Manager suggested he open up a “bookstore” instead… but then he couldn’t advertise the Tarot readings or use the word on his storefront sign.
He eventually opened up the business as a “bookstore giftshop” and, since he couldn’t sell Tarot readings, offered them for free. But that got him in trouble as well:
On or around October 9, 2017, then-Richlands Police Department Chief, Defendant Frank Dorton, visited Mountain Magic and inquired whether Mr. Mullins had been offering Tarot readings. Mr. Mullins confirmed that he had been offering Tarot readings for free. Defendant Dorton told Mr. Mullins that it was illegal to conduct Tarot readings whether he charged a fee or not, and that he could be fined and/or charged with a misdemeanor if they continued to do so. Defendant Dorton told Mr. Mullins he could offer Tarot readings for free on the sidewalk outside the store, but not anywhere within the business.
The sidewalk readings didn’t work, and at a Town Council meeting, Christians spoke out against Mullins’ business entirely. They did it again when Mullins asked local officials to amend the zoning ordinance to permit fortune telling as an acceptable business. (The lawsuit notes that the “official minutes of the meeting omit all of these comments.”)
Mullins is now saying all of this is a violation of his First Amendment rights, a “substantial burden on religious exercise,” and a violation of the Virginia Religious Freedom Act.
Say what you will about so-called psychics and Tarot cards. You don’t have to believe there’s any legitimacy to those things to understand that what the town is doing here is illegal. It’s a form of Christian supremacy that treats other irrational beliefs as unacceptable. Mullins is right to sue, and the ACLU has good reason to think they’ll win the case.