“You can carry a gun in this state, but pull out a deck of tarot cards and give a reading, and you’ll get arrested,” says Sorcha Pixie Moon, speaking about a relatively obscure North Carolina law that has recently been invoked in Haywood and Buncombe counties. Moon argues that the law violates her freedom of religion.
According to General Statute 14-401.5, “It shall be unlawful for any persons to practice the arts of phrenology, palmistry, fortune-telling and other crafts of a similar kind.” Curiously, the law applies to only 66 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, including Buncombe, Haywood and Madison.
And in recent months, the law has been used to shut down the businesses of at least two practicing psychics — one in Waynesville, one in West Asheville. Says Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford, “Everybody here has closed down voluntarily.” His department sent out letters to known practitioners in the county, informing them about the law and asking them to take down their signs. “To tell you the truth, we’ve never had a problem with them,” says Medford, noting that one of the fortunetellers has been in the county at least 15 years, with no previously reported problems, complaints or incidents, to the best of his knowledge.
The closure of Psychic Handreading, a new Haywood County business, was spurred by an anonymous complaint citing state law, reports Chief Deputy Jimmy Parton. “We had our county attorney look into it, and learned it was against the law. … Our county tax collector had issued [Psychic Handreading] a business permit about a month ago, unaware of the law,” he explains.
The business owner — after questioning why he had been issued a permit, in the first place — voluntarily shut his doors, Parton adds … and moved to South Carolina, where fortunetelling is legal (it’s OK in adjacent Jackson County, N.C., too, Parton notes, citing a further curiosity of the law).
“I’ve been giving readings for years, and didn’t know it was illegal,” Moon remarks.
Sufficiently riled to fight the 1951 statute — which appears in the law books immediately before another unusual restriction that prohibits owning tear gas, “except in certain circumstances” — Moon took part in a July 3 demonstration in Waynesville, where practitioners of the outlawed arts gave readings on the county-courthouse steps. “This is what we’re trying to do: educate people and raise awareness,” Moon observes. Her religion — a loosely structured practice commonly referred to as Wicca, or Witchcraft, includes the arts or “crafts” listed above in its rituals — is earth-based and honors the powers of nature, Moon explains: “I can’t turn you into a frog. … I practice my religion in my own private time, and people don’t understand it.”
Deputy Parton says that television crews were out in full force the day of the demonstration, perhaps anticipating some sort of confrontation. Instead, he notes matter-of-factly: “We just stood plumb back out of the way. We left [the demonstrators] alone, although they didn’t have a permit.”
For his part, Sheriff Medford says he’s talked to a few practicing fortunetellers and understands that they regard the activity as a key part of their religion. He doesn’t dispute that, but observes, “As long as [a law] is on the books, you’ve got to enforce it.” When asked if this is one of those antiquated laws that needs to be repealed, Medford laughs. “I won’t get into the politics of that. I don’t know, constitutionally, how it would [stand up] if it was challenged,” he reflects.
That’s exactly what Moon and other practitioners have in mind. She’s part of a new group — the Ancient Arts Freedom Association — which plans an Asheville demonstration on Friday, Aug. 13 at the Vance Monument, from 3-6 p.m. Group members are also circulating a petition and writing to state legislators and the Governor’s Crime Commission, Moon reports.
“For us, [these outlawed rituals] are an integral part of our power and ability to know the future. … This is so intimately attached to our religion, we’re willing to go to jail, or take it to court,” explains Asheville Wiccan Dixie Deerman, who goes by the spiritual name Lady Passion. She points out that the law appears to make no distinction between commercial uses of the listed crafts and private, or religious ones.
Another Wiccan, who asked to remain anonymous, says that tarot-card readings are a tool meant to link users’ conscious minds with their subconscious selves, somewhat like the practice of Buddhist meditation. “It’s a way to integrate spirit and body,” this practitioner of the art offers.
Given the seriousness with which they approach their religion, it’s no surprise that these Wiccans are offended by the second paragraph of the state statute: “This section shall not prohibit the amateur practice of phrenology, palmistry, fortune-telling or clairvoyance in connection with school or church socials, provided such socials are held in school or church buildings.”
To Moon, fortunetelling is akin to counseling: “I can’t tell you your future, but I can give you guidance,” she observes, adding, “What if you told a psychiatrist he could only counsel patients at a school carnival? [Legislators] are making fun of us [by] saying [these arts] can only be done at a church or school function.” The statute, Moon insists, amounts to religious persecution, noting that she fears repercussions in the conservative WNC community where she lives. (For this reason, Moon asked that Mountain Xpress use only her Magick name, not her legal one). “It’s really hard to feel free when you have to hide your religion,” she asserts.
Deerman cites the same issues, calling the statute “very McCarthy-esque” and a form of “religious bigotry.” She, too, is offended by the church-social clause, asking, “Why should it be OK for silly stuff at a church or school, but not the real thing?”
Says Deerman, “This [statute] is like the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads all the time.” She’s concerned that anonymous complaints can get a practitioner’s business shut down, as happened in Haywood County last month, and — last year — in Raleigh, where police closed down a cafe operated by a local coven of witches who gave readings there. That was in the winter of 1998, says Deerman: “[The coven] has been entangled in legal battles ever since. … [Law enforcement] can pick on us at any time.”
Both Medford and Parton insist that the recent closings have been voluntary and relatively amicable. “They didn’t want to cause any trouble, and I didn’t want to make any,” says Medford.
But the state statute is ambiguous at best, stresses Deerman, because it makes no distinction between commercial and private practice. She also cautions that the law leaves municipalities vulnerable to lawsuits (the American Civil Liberties Union has been involved in the Raleigh case). “How can you define clairvoyance? How can you prove it — or disprove it?” she asks, suggesting that even university research projects investigating the paranormal may be illegal, under a strict interpretation of the law — not to mention law enforcement’s occasional use of psychics in solving cases.
Deerman also mentions that the North Carolina law was adopted at a time when England was repealing its own anti-witchcraft laws; in the U.S., many states eliminated such laws in the 1980s. And the fact that fortunetelling is legal in the nearby counties of Jackson and Yancey makes the N.C. law appear arbitary, she continues.
“The fact is, there are many laws like this that are silly and unnecessary, but there’s a sort of entrenched, good-ol’-boy network that keeps them on the books,” Deerman declares.