Archives For Chesterfield County

This story begins in 2002. Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan and member of a local Unitarian Universalist congregation in Virginia, approached the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to be included in a rotating lineup of local clergy who gave opening prayers/invocations at board meetings. Simpson was rebuffed by the County’s lawyer, saying that due to the “polytheistic, pre-Christian” nature of her faith they could not honor the request. So, starting in 2003, a lawsuit was filed.

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson

“The Chesterfield County Board opens its meetings with an invocation given by invited local clergy whose names are drawn from an official list that the County maintains. Virtually all the clergy who have delivered invocations represent Christian denominations. The County denied our Wiccan plaintiff’s request to be added to the invocation list on the ground that Wicca is “neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities,” and therefore it does not fall within “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” At the time of the denial, several of the county-board members made statements mocking the Wiccan faith. AU and the ACLU filed suit in federal court on December 4, 2002, alleging that disallowing non-Christian clergy from presenting invocations violates the Constitution. In November 2003, the district court held that the exclusion was unconstitutional. The defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and in 2004 AU and its cooperating attorneys briefed the appeal. Oral argument was held on February 3, 2005. Unfortunately, we drew a very conservative panel (Judges Niemeyer, Wilkinson, and Williams) that, on April 14, 2005, issued a unanimous decision on the defendants’ behalf. The court reasoned that Marsh v. Chambers permits municipalities to limit prayer-givers to the Judeo-Christian tradition. We filed a petition for rehearing on April 26, 2005, but it was denied shortly thereafter. We filed a petition for certiorari on August 8, 2005, but it was denied on October 10, 2005, thereby concluding the case.”

Simpson’s case, and the Darla Wynne case (also a Wiccan), would go on to help advocates of public government prayer craft policies that ensured things stayed in comfortable Judeo-Christian territory so long as the prayers were not sectarian in nature. This “Christian only, so long as you don’t say ‘Jesus'” status quo (or the “Wiccan-proof policy” as I liked to call it) endured until the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“In essence the Court ruled that Greece’s prayer program was non-coercive and fully reflective of American historical tradition and the town’s own cultural heritage. If a legislative body employs sectarian prayer to “lend gravity” to its proceedings and does so in a way that is non-threatening, then religious prayer before a governmental meeting does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

While the SCOTUS ruling opens the door for sectarian prayers, it also notes that having a policy of full inclusion is constitutionally vital in such circumstances.

“Justice Kennedy writes the majority opinion for five Justices.  He concludes that the prayers are constitutional, because they aren’t overly sectarian or overly coercive.  It’s enough that the Town of Greece opened the prayer opportunity up to everyone, and allowed anyone to say anything.  It doesn’t matter that the prayers ended up being overwhelmingly Christian in tone and in number — that wasn’t the Town’s fault.  And it doesn’t matter that citizens attending these meetings may have felt pressure to pray — they had no solid reason to feel any such pressure.”

So the SCOTUS case that involved a sectarian Wiccan prayer, built on lower court decisions that involved Wiccan prayers, now comes full circle and returns to Chesterfield County.

ACLUVA_logo1“The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent county leaders a letter Thursday stating that the county’s policy must be changed to allow any person from any faith to pray before public meetings for the county to comply with the First Amendment. The county will consult with its attorney on that particular point, but County Administrator James J.L. “Jay” Stegmaier acknowledged that another portion of the policy prohibiting prayers specifically praising or opposing one religion appears at odds with the Supreme Court’s new guidance. In a shift from its previous guidance that prayers be generic, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Supreme Court’s decision that local governments ‘cannot require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message to make it acceptable for the public sphere.'”

You can read the full letter from the ACLU and AU here.

So here is where the rubber hits the road on the Supreme Court’s prayer idealism. The notion that sectarianism within a government context is OK so long as it’s an open sectarianism. Can the court enforce a truly inclusive model, or will it fail on the local level as politicians and Christian activists scramble to find some way of enforcing a Christians-only policy? Will we finally see Cynthia Simpson give a Wiccan prayer in Chesterfield County, and if we do, does that mean that we’ve won a victory? Will inclusion bring acceptance and understanding, or will its symbolism only reverberate within our interconnected communities? Whatever happens, it looks like we might find out.

Can local governments tell diviners, psychics, and practitioners of other related predictive arts where to go? According to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, yes, they can. On February 26th a three-judge panel upheld a lower court ruling that said Sophie Moore-King, aka Sophie King, aka “Psychic Sophie,” is not exempt from zoning codes and taxes aimed at psychics even though she claims to be engaged in religious counseling and immune from these regulations.

A screenshot of Psychic Sophie's website.

A screenshot of Psychic Sophie’s website.

“As the government complies with the professional speech doctrine by enacting and implementing a generally applicable regulatory regime, the fact that such a scheme may vary from profession to profession recedes in constitutional significance. Just as the internal requirements of a profession may differ, so may the government’s regulatory response based on the nature of the activity and the need to protect the public. See Post, supra at 134 n.83 (“The shape and form of constitutional protections extended to professional speech will depend upon the precise constitutional values at stake.”). With respect to an occupation such as fortune telling where no accrediting institution like a board of law examiners or medical practitioners exists, a legislature may reasonably determine that additional regulatory requirements are necessary.”

The panel denied that King’s business was materially different from other psychic services currently regulated in Chesterfield County, and thus exempt, though the panel was careful to note that psychic services do have constitutional protections, albeit limited by the “professional speech doctrine.”

“If, as the County contended at oral argument, all predictive speech were inherently deceptive, most religious prophesy, financial prognostication, and medical diagnosis would fall outside the scope of constitutional protection. Cf. Nefedro, 996 A.2d at 858 (noting that lawyers and journalists may also make statements that turn out not to be true). The reality that much professional intercourse depends on predictions about what the future may bring suggests that categorical branding of fortune telling as unworthy of First Amendment protection for that same reason is untenable.”

This seems like very murky territory, Constitutionally speaking, and from my reading justices were aware that their decision could influence local regulations far outside Chesterfield County, Virginia. In short, they are saying that while divination can be protected speech, local governments can, in fact, tell psychics where they can set up shop, and charge special taxes to regulate them. This is unfortunate, because places like Chesterfield use their regulations to create subcultural “red light districts” part of a growing trend to reported on by news organizations like Time Magazine and the BBC.

shutterstock 1114023

Tarot cards.

“But in an increasing number of areas, officials are seeking to crack down on fraud and gain control of a growing industry. As of this month, every fortune-teller in the city of Warren, Michigan must have a licence to operate. To get this they must undergo a police background check, have their fingerprints taken and pay an annual fee of $160. [...] Measures introduced include police interviews, background checks, registration fees, the random inspections of premises and a cap on the number of fortune tellers allowed to operate in a given geographical area.”

So what’s to be done? Well, the 4th Circuit does point to a couple possibilities. First, you may be exempt from regulations if your divination is done as part of a religious ritual and not simply as part of a way of life.

Cognizant that defining the borders between the personal and philosophical on one side, and the religious on the other “present[s] a most delicate question,” id. at 215, we conclude that Moore-King’s beliefs more closely resemble personal and philosophical choices consistent with a way of life, not deep religious convictions shared by an organized group deserving of constitutional solicitude. Yoder teaches that Moore-King must offer some organizing principle or authority other than herself that prescribes her religious convictions, as to allow otherwise would threaten “the very concept of ordered liberty.” Yet Moore-King forswears such a view when she declares that instead of following any particular religion or organized recognized faith, she “pretty much goes with [her] inner flow, and that seems to work best.”

So, for instance, a follower of Kemetic Orthodoxy who provided divination to clients from within that tradition’s belief system may be exempt. Likewise, followers of Vodou or Santeria who are operating within a explicitly religious milieu could also challenge regulations telling them where to set up a church or temple that also provided divination services to the public. For those not invested within an established and recognized religious model, the judges suggest that a national accreditation board that oversees the ethical behavior of its membership could protect a psychic reader from “additional regulatory requirements.”

With respect to an occupation such as fortune telling where no accrediting institution like a board of law examiners or medical practitioners exists, a legislature may reasonably determine that additional regulatory requirements are necessary.”

Such a board would, of course, have to then challenge local regulations, arguing that they place unnecessary regulations and limitations on their profession (because they self-regulate). So an uphill climb, to be sure, especially considering the rather independent nature of many psychic practitioners.

For those of us who practice religions that incorporate divination, and sometimes selling divination services to individuals outside our faith traditions, we need to pay attention to decisions like this one. Local town and country governments may well see Chesterfield as a model for how to regulate psychics, and so we need to understand what the limitations, and opportunities to challenge those limitations, are. This is probably the end of “Psychic Sophie’s” legal journey on the matter, but I doubt it will be the last case to challenge zoning and regulatory ordinances regarding predictive services.

For my run-down of the Psychic Sophie saga up to this point, see my post from 2011.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

 

In the beginning of 2010 I reported on the case of Patricia Moore-King (aka “Psychic Sophie”), a psychic practitioner/spiritual counselor who challenged Chesterfield County’s onerous zoning regulations designed to discourage tarot readers, psychics, astrologers, and other practitioners of “occult sciences” from opening up a shop. King maintains that she wasn’t a “fortune teller” but engaged in a form of religious counseling, and therefore the regulations didn’t apply to her.

A screenshot of Psychic Sophie's website.

A screenshot of Psychic Sophie's website.

The County of Chesterfield’s laws classify Ms. King’s activities as “the occupation of occult sciences” and therefore defines her as a “fortune-teller” (she does not identify herself as such), which subjects her to numerous restrictions including a background investigation, a criminal record check, review by the chief of police and other requirements related to her “character” and “demeanor” that are not required of any other religious or commercial enterprise within the County. These restrictions also do not apply to other religious or secular counselors, or even to persons “pretending to act” as fortune-tellers.

The County’s zoning code also restricts Ms. King’s activities to a zoning district that includes adult businesses, pawnbrokers, material reclamation yards, and vehicle impoundment lots, and forbids her from the zoning district where her current office is located and where other counselors are permitted. Ms. King is further subject to an additional occupation tax not required of other counselors. The Complaint states that “the negative treatment of ‘fortune-tellers’ is motivated by official hostility to individuals based on the viewpoint and content of their speech, and their spiritual beliefs.”

In July of 2010 U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne threw the case back to the local level, saying King failed to press for a final resolution before heading to court. Now Religion Clause reports that a Federal District Court has upheld Chesterfield’s regulations, and rejected claims that she was engaged in  religious practices.

In Moore-King v. County of Chesterfield Virginia, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 112205 (ED VA, Sept. 30, 2011), a Virginia federal district court rejected  constitutional challenges to Chesterfield County, Virginia’s regulation of the business of fortune telling. Patricia Moore-King, a “spiritual counselor” who operated under the name of “Psychic Sophie” claimed that the county’s zoning, business license tax and fortune teller permit ordinances violate her free exercise of religion, free speech and equal protection rights. The court held that plaintiff’s predictions and counseling services are inherently deceptive commercial speech, and that the regulation of them is reasonably drawn. The court rejected plaintiff’s free exercise and RLUIPA claims, finding that she is not engaged in religious practices. It also rejected her equal protection claims.

I don’t have access to the full decision, but these seem like very bold rulings that swim against the prevailing trend in cases regarding psychic services. In 2010 the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that fortune telling and related services are protected speech, and 2008 a federal judge tossed out a fortune telling ban in Livingston Parish, Louisiana.  No doubt the judge felt he had more judicial leeway since this wasn’t a total ban, but how did he determine that King’s services are “inherently deceptive”? That she isn’t engaged in a religious practice?

In 2010 both Time Magazine and the BBC looked at a growing trend of stricter regulations against psychics being enforced by local governments. The creation of these subcultural “red light districts” are often harder to challenge than a total ban, though they often have the same effect. In my interview with author and renowned tarot expert Mary K. Greer, she spoke about her business (reading cards) should be treated like any other business, and not singled out for punitive regulations.

“No. I don’t believe in specific laws and regulations for fortune tellers that go beyond the standard business laws of any community. It has been found that laws prohibiting fraud cover most cases of abuse perfectly adequately and far better than regulations that discriminate unfairly against this particular profession, especially when they assume criminal behavior where none has been shown by the individual. It has been proved over and over again that discriminatory regulations are created by special interest groups and that they are unfair and almost always unconstitutional.

I’ve always been proud of being part of what I call an “outlaw profession,” partly because it operates outside of the laws, understanding and expectations of regulated society and crosses over the boundaries that tend to distinguish professions, being in-part, entertainment, spiritual guidance, noetic and folk therapeutics, and more. By definition, I provide a service that is not covered adequately by the more traditional and accepted professions. Clients are looking for something extra-ordinary and they get something extra-ordinary. I have the freedom to self-design and describe what I do—which also brings with it the responsibility to explain this as clearly as possible to my clients. I am also responsible to establish my own ethical guidelines and to know and operate my business within the laws and regulations of any area in which I work. While the public is taking a chance on what they are getting, “chance” is, by definition (fate-fortune-chance), part of what they are seeking. However, most of what I’ve said in this paragraph has no bearing on the legal issue, which is a matter of free-speech, occasionally freedom of religion, and is a business service that should be treated like other businesses. If fees and fingerprinting are standard for all businesses then fortune telling should be included.”

I have to say that I find it hard to not draw a line between these regulation and that fact that this is the same Chesterfield County that invented the so-called “Wiccan-proof” invocation model. In any event, I can’t imagine this ruling remaining unchallenged (especially if some courts see fortune telling as protected speech), though I suppose that will depend on King’s law firm. In the meantime, at least in Chesterfield County, divination isn’t considered a religious practice, and their zoning regulations stand.

Back in May I wrote an article looking at the issue of opening invocations at various government bodies. At the center of that piece was discussion of a recently enacted policy in Maryland by the Frederick County Commissioners. The new policy was modeled on the one adopted by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in Virginia after they successfully survived a legal challenge by Wiccan priestess Cynthia Simpson. That policy, and the Frederick County Commissioners’ new policy, called for nonsectarian prayers, but only from members of established monotheistic faiths.

“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”

An NBC Washington headline called it the “Wiccan-proof prayer policy” and that spin must have caught the attention of County Attorney John Mathias, because the commissioners voted to alter the policy yesterday.

“They voted Thursday in Frederick to adopt changes recommended by County Attorney John Mathias. A key revision eliminates language allowing only those of monotheistic religions to offer the opening invocation. Mathias says such a restriction would have required the county to determine which religions are monotheistic.”

This is an interesting development. In theory, they should be on solid legal ground. Back in 2005 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Chesterfield County’s policy was diverse enough, meeting the standards set by the Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers (though the Hindu American FoundationThe Buddhist Peace FellowshipThe Association on American Indian Affairs, and The Interfaith Alliance did not agree). So either this is a public relations move, or, they think that if this policy is challenged as-is it might not stand up in court. Considering the rather rah-rah “one nation under God” rhetoric of the original press release in May, I don’t think their hearts were suddenly moved by the absence of polytheists, or that they were worried over losing the critical polytheist vote in Frederick County (though they were contacted multiple times for comment by the DC bureau of the Pagan Newswire Collective). So it must mean that there is real concern, perhaps even outside Frederick County, that explicitly excluding non-monotheistic religions could ultimately bring down the “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” house of cards in Chesterfield as well.

Now that Frederick County is open to polytheist invocation, at least in theory (one that I hope gets tested soon), perhaps it’s time for the ACLU in Virginia to return to Chesterfield County and begin building a new case. In the meantime, I applaud the Frederick County Commissioners for doing the right thing, albeit a few months later than I would have liked.

As various government bodies in the United States navigate what is and isn’t a violation of restrictions against the endorsement of a particular religion (aka the separation of church and state) when giving an opening invocation, two models have emerged. The first model says you can have sectarian prayer (ie specific invocations to named deities or powers) so long as everyone is invited to participate, and the second model says that only nonsectarian (ie generic invocations to “god”) prayers are acceptable. Conservative Christians activists generally favor the first model, while secular civil liberties organizations broadly prefer the second. Between these two poles a variety of variations have been tested, often in the courts.

In many cases modern Pagans, specifically Wiccans, have been caught in the tumult of what is and isn’t permissible. For example, there’s the “include a Wiccan” gambit to protect yourself from accusations of “open” invocation models that seem to only invite Christians (though mere randomness sometimes isn’t enough), and then there’s the “we don’t want to include a Wiccan” model famously undertaken by Chesterfield County, Virgina. In that case a rotating sectarian model was challenged by a Wiccan when she wasn’t allowed a turn, the county board changed their policy to nonsectarian during litigation and that seemed to be enough to make exclusion of minority faiths permissible. This “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” policy seems to have made an impression as it is now being emulated by Frederick County, Maryland.

“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”

The restriction to only “monotheistic” faiths is echoed in local coverage as well. An NBC Washington headline specifically called it the “Wiccan-Proof Prayer Policy.” Here’s what County Commissioners say about their new policy in a press release.

The Frederick Board of County Commissioners today approved an invocation policy to allow prayer at certain of its meetings, consistent with the Chesterfield County, Va., invocation policy upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. [...] “We do not believe there would be any disagreement from the majority of Americans that we are still ‘one nation under God,’ as we say in our pledge of allegiance, and that it says on our dollar bill, ‘In God We Trust.’ Our policy does not mandate a one-county religion or endorse any religion over another, but we do acknowledge our Creator.”

While one commissioner was against the new policy because it didn’t allow sectarian prayers to Jesus, he is no doubt mollified by the reassurance that no polytheist will be allowed an invocation. Since the Chesterfield County policy went all the way to the Supreme Court (who refused to hear the appeal) no doubt many will see this path to exclusion as legally bulletproof. The only reason it hasn’t been more widely adopted by conservative Christian-dominated government bodies is that they hate nonsectarian prayer almost as much as they hate non-Christian religions. Indeed, at this moment the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled in the Chesterfield case, is hearing case on the legality of sectarian prayer on a supposed open first-come-first-served model.

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, the senior judge among the three hearing Thursday’s arguments on appeal, at one point said that the county’s policy seemed geared to favor the “faith of a majority of residents in the county.” “The result of the policy is that the prayer is overtly sectarian,” Wilkinson later said. [...] Katherine Parker, the attorney for the residents who sued the county, said that despite the wording of the county policy, the real effect — as shown by the prayers that have been prayed — was to advance Christianity by the county government.

If the 4th Circuit paves the way for more sectarian prayer, will the Frederick County Government change policy? Is wink-and-a-nudge nonsectarianism enough? Either way, government officials seem to be ensuring that only monotheist lips utter prayers at meetings. Whether these models will ultimately remain “Wiccan-Proof” remains to be seen.

The Perils of Spiritual Counseling: It looks like U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne isn’t going to issue a ruling in the case of Patricia Moore-King v. County of Chesterfield, Virginia at this time. Instead, Payne says both Chesterfield County, and Patricia Moore-King failed to failed to press for a final resolution on a local level before heading to court.

“Payne did not issue an official ruling, but said it seemed that neither King nor county officials followed through on her attempt to get a license and that she needed to press for a formal resolution of the dispute before going to court. “I want her to go back and do it right,” Payne said.”

So it looks like we’ll have to await a formal resolution on a local level, and I’m not sure exactly what that will entail. I’m not anticipating any forward movement on that front. Chesterfield County isn’t exactly what one would call “friendly” to alternative modes of belief. Even if she does head back to federal court, she may not like the outcome. Judge Payne was openly skeptical of her religious rights claims, saying she was the “the author of her own misfortune”, and openly questioning her reluctance to submit to a background check.

“Fortune tellers have fleeced people in the past,” the judge said. “… For all we know she’s been involved in chicanery elsewhere in the United States and doesn’t want her background checked.”

In other words, if you aren’t guilty of something, why shouldn’t you talk? The judge also seemed to agree with defense attorneys that her web site points towards her being a fortune teller, and not a “spiritual counselor”. It’s very likely this may end in a stalemate, or simply grind to a halt. We’ll see if Moore-King presses for a local resolution and tries to move forward with litigation again.

Empowering Tribal Nations to End Rape: Back in 2007 I posted an Amnesty International report that revealed shocking levels of outsider rape being perpetrated on American Indian and Alaska Native women. Later that same year the Senate Indian Affairs Committee heard the testimony of Indian women to start the process of drafting legislation to address the problem. Yesterday, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act which will give tribal law enforcement more tools and powers to patrol and mete justice on their own lands.

“The new law requires the Department of Justice to collect and share data on crimes that happen on tribal land that U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute. The new law also increases the maximum sentence that can be handed down in tribal court, now up to three years, and it provides more training to law enforcement officials on how to collect evidence in cases of sexual assault.”

Amnesty International is very pleased, as are various Native media outlets and writers. I’m personally very glad to see some forward movement on this issue, one that will hopefully reverse some horrific trends in Indian Country.

The Cosmopolitan Wing of the Tea Party? The New York Press does a spotlight on the Tea Party in New York, compares them with other factions of the movement, and finds them more cosmopolitan, less outwardly radical, than some of their brethren. Since it’s a spotlight of the Tea Party in New York, they spare a moment to discuss one its stars, openly Pagan New York City councilman Dan Halloran.

“Liberty is on the march,” Dan Halloran yells as he clutches a microphone in front of a gathered crowd inside Webster Hall. “Not only is it on the march, but liberty is kicking ass and starting to take names all over the United States.” … About 100 people cheered for Halloran, a self-professed Germanic pagan and a newly elected councilmember from Queens…

It’s an interesting look at the movement, and how wide-ranging it can be depending on where it’s located. Though it remains to be seen if it will coalesce into an enduring political force, or if the more moderate members can learn to get along with personalities like Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

The Associated Press reports that a federal hearing in Richmond, VA is scheduled today in the case of Patricia Moore-King v. County of Chesterfield, Virginia over local anti-fortune telling ordinances. I covered this case back in January, where I detailed the absurdly over-restrictive hurdles of practicing an “occult science” in Chesterfield County.

“The current zoning regulations are designed for just one thing, to discourage tarot readers, psychics, astrologers, and other practitioners of “occult sciences” from opening up a shop in Chesterfield. That licensing for this classification is more onerous than for a strip club or pawn shop, and relegates them to the “red light” district (not to mention the character references), tells you a bit about the priorities of the county.”

Patricia Moore-King (aka Sophie King, aka “Psychic Sophie”) has maintained throughout that she doesn’t identify as a “fortune teller” but as a spiritual counselor, and that the ordinances place an undue burden on her free religious expression.

The County of Chesterfield’s laws classify Ms. King’s activities as “the occupation of occult sciences” and therefore defines her as a “fortune-teller” (she does not identify herself as such), which subjects her to numerous restrictions including a background investigation, a criminal record check, review by the chief of police and other requirements related to her “character” and “demeanor” that are not required of any other religious or commercial enterprise within the County. These restrictions also do not apply to other religious or secular counselors, or even to persons “pretending to act” as fortune-tellers.

The County’s zoning code also restricts Ms. King’s activities to a zoning district that includes adult businesses, pawnbrokers, material reclamation yards, and vehicle impoundment lots, and forbids her from the zoning district where her current office is located and where other counselors are permitted. Ms. King is further subject to an additional occupation tax not required of other counselors. The Complaint states that “the negative treatment of ‘fortune-tellers’ is motivated by official hostility to individuals based on the viewpoint and content of their speech, and their spiritual beliefs.”

What’s important about this case is that it isn’t about fortune telling, mediumship, and other psychic services being completely banned (a practice that is becoming increasingly flimsy with each court case win), but about the restrictions local governments put on the practices when they are allowed. Tarot expert Mary K. Greer notes that in many places “legal” fortune-telling often goes with hand-in-hand with unreasonable licensing demands and humiliating hoops to jump through.

“…in Warren, Michigan, laws restricting fortune telling are becoming stricter, while San Francisco has an outrageously convoluted licensing system for fortune tellers. Such laws have little to do with actually protecting people from fraud (anti-fraud laws do this adequately) and more to do with ameliorating complaints and protecting special interests. Many states and city or county ordinances require licensing for fortune-telling, and they are very inconsistent with the range of fields that require such licenses as summarized here.”

While those “special interests” can be religiously motivated, they can also be about property values and keeping the “wrong” kind of businesses out of certain shopping areas. Whatever the motivation, these laws often place an unconstitutional burden on religious freedom and free expression. We should pay very close attention to this court case and its outcome, because the decision could have far-reaching ramification on fortune-telling ordinances across the country.

When you use tarot cards are you engaging in an “occult science”, or are you providing “spiritual counseling”? Who gets to make that distinction? Chesterfield County in Virginia thinks that they get to, but a lawsuit by a local tarot card reader is challenging that assumption.

“Sophie King, who said she offers spiritual counseling, filed the lawsuit in the belief that the county’s classification of her business as “engaged in the occupation of occult sciences” is wrong. She also said the business tax and zoning rules that come with the classification are unfair and violate her First Amendment rights. In Chesterfield, businesses considered to be fortune-telling establishments must pay a $300 tax to get a business license, while nightclubs and adult businesses pay only a $100 tax for a license. Fortune-telling businesses must submit five references from the county to the police chief for approval. They are limited to one zoning designation – the same one reserved for adult businesses, scrap yards and pawn shops. And they must get a conditional-use permit for that zoning.”

You can read the full case filing, here. The current zoning regulations are designed for just one thing, to discourage tarot readers, psychics, astrologers, and other practitioners of “occult sciences” from opening up a shop in Chesterfield. That licensing for this classification is more onerous than for a strip club or pawn shop, and relegates them to the “red light” district (not to mention the character references), tells you a bit about the priorities of the county. In an interview with a local NBC affiliate, King says she’ll fight these regulations for as long as it takes.

“This sort of thinking, it’s very middle ages in terms of thinking about what I do … I’m being looked at in a negative way before I’ve even gotten out the starting gate … [I'm willing to fight for] As long as it takes.”

Chesterfield County is another in a long line of towns, cities, and counties who either enforce antiquated laws, or enact new regulations that try to curtail or ban the practice of any divinatory art. In the end, most of these regulations are found to be unconstitutional when challenged in court, but they get passed anyway, hoping no one will risk their time and resources with a legal battle. Any hey, if the discriminatory law or regulation gets struck down, at least they looked good to conservative Christian voters. After all, it’s only taxpayer money they’re spending, so why not go all out?

Christian Justice?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 11, 2005 — 2 Comments

The news has just come in that Cynthia Simpson’s appeal to the Supreme Court has been rejected. Simpson, a Wiccan (and aspiring UU minister) had taken Chesterfield County, Va to court over the right to be included in the rotating opening prayers by local clergy. Originally an ACLU-backed battle by one individual the case soon gained support from The Hindu American Foundation, The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, The Association on American Indian Affairs, and The Interfaith Alliance.

This rejection by the court means that Chesterfield County can continue to alienate faiths that are not “Judeo-Christian” in origin so long as the opening prayers remain non-sectarian (the prayers weren’t non-sectarian when the case was filed and had become so by the first appeal).

The larger question is if the Supreme Court is steering clear of decisions that would upset the “status quo” of religion in America? Simpson’s case is the second case involving modern Pagans that has been refused a hearing. The first case involving Darla Wynne fell out in our favor (a third involving incarcerated Pagans upheld a law already in place).

The appointment of John Roberts as Chief Justice of the United States could create a number of setbacks to legal cases involving modern Pagans (and other minority faiths). As Chief Justice Roberts has the power to frame the tone and direction of the court. The Chief Justice controls the “discuss list” of cases to be heard (though other justices can add to it) and speaks first at conferences where cases are discussed and voted on by the Justices. Beyond that four justices must agree to hear the case for it to be added to the schedule. If the court veers further to the right with the appointment of Harriet Miers we could see a refusal to hear any case that may broaden the rights of modern Pagans on issues of equal rights, participation, and inclusion. Considering that the Roberts-led court is already looking at a case that could limit the government’s power to protect the environment I’m not too optimistic.

As it stands the developing legal status quo is that you can exclude minority faiths so long as you don’t say “Jesus”. Our rights now rest ultimately on the makeup of the Supreme Court, a scary proposition if it becomes a haven for partisan cronies.