ACLU sues Town of Richlands over suppression of speech, religious discrimination

aclu virginiaThe ACLU of Virginia has filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of Richlands in southwest Virginia for violating the free speech and religious freedom rights of a local resident who is banned from reading tarot cards as part of his business.

ACLU-VA filed the suit today in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia on behalf of Mark Mullins, owner of Mountain Magic Tarot and Reading Shop..

Mr. Mullins has been reading tarot cards for approximately 30 years. For the past 10 years, he and his husband Jerome have used tarot as a central part of their daily religious and spiritual practice, known as Hermeticism, a blending of several different religious traditions that dates to the second and third centuries A.D.

“Tarot is our Bible,” Mr. Mullins said. “It means the world to me to be able to share my practice with others.”

According to the lawsuit, the Town of Richlands used its business licensing and zoning scheme to effectively ban Mr. Mullins from opening a tarot reading business anywhere within the town, in violation of his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, and his rights under federal and state laws protecting religious freedom.

“Mr. Mullins wants to be able to share his tarot practice with others seeking spiritual guidance and advice on how to live their lives, just as some members of other major religions seek to share their texts for such guidance,” said ACLU of Virginia Senior Staff Attorney Vishal Agraharkar.

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 raucous public hearing in February 2018. At the 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 and attempting to impose prior restraint.

Defendants in the lawsuit are the Town of Richlands, Town Manager Timothy Taylor, the current and former chiefs of police, and the chair of the town planning commission.

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