Shutting Down the Psychics?

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An obscure and unused law against professional fortune-telling in Philadelphia has been revived, and as a result several businesses have already been shut down.

“Alerted to an obscure state law banning fortune-telling “for gain or lucre,” the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections is closing storefront psychics, astrologers, phrenologists and tarot-card readers who charge money for their services. Inspectors had closed 16 shops since Tuesday, Deputy L&I Commissioner Dominic E. Verdi said yesterday.”

It seems the Department of Licenses and Inspections was alerted to the law by the local police department, but it remains to be known why this law was suddenly enforced now and not in the past thirty years. Quotas? Disgruntled customer(s) who looked up the law and complained to the police? Christian crusaders on and off the police force? What is clear is that the Deputy L&I Commissioner Dominic E. Verdi has a very clear idea of who he is shutting down.

“Inspectors are not imposing fines, and police are not making arrests, Verdi said, “but they will if these people try to return to work.” Most so-called psychics, he said, “are not little old ladies with kerchiefs on their heads” but clever con artists capable of stealing large sums – even life savings – from grieving or otherwise vulnerable people.”

While I doubt anyone is against shutting down malicious con-artists, many tarot readers see what they do as a spiritual practice tied to their faith. Its no secret that many Pagan-run shops offer tarot, astrology, and other divination methods in exchange for goods and services. Not to mention the fact that a large number of Pagan/Wiccan authors supplement their income through tarot and related services.

Battles over psychic bans are very much a part of our history, from Z. Budapest’s historic arrest in California, to the recent victory in overturning North Carolina’s fortune-telling laws. Such laws against fortune-telling are often a warning sign that the “moral” local government is wanting to crack down on the “occult element” (and have been fought for just that reason). Anti-psychic laws, while popular with moral crusaders in some areas blatantly violate our Constitutional rights.

“…while skeptics chortle over the fraudulence of all fortune-telling, civil libertarians bridle at government restrictions on the right of people to indulge their beliefs in psychic power (which are no more or less ridiculous than belief in God). We don’t license preachers or require them to prove they’re not conning us (indeed, these days we offer them public funds). Why should we license psychics? Religious freedom means that seances enjoy the same constitutional protection as the sacraments … Categorical bans on fortune-telling are unconstitutional…”

The problem is that legal challenges take money, lawyers, and often years of commitment to overturn in the courts. Resources individual store-front psychics or Wiccans working out of a converted closet in an occult store don’t have. It remains to be seen if the enforced Philly ban will spread to the rest of the state, so far shops in the suburbs are keeping a low profile and hoping they aren’t noticed.

“A man who answered the phone at 6 p.m. at Psychic Readings by Lori, in Narberth, was happy to schedule an appointment but wouldn’t grant an interview. He said he hadn’t been affected by any crackdown, and had no opinion on what was happening in the city. He had to go. He was busy!”

There is no telling if psychic readers will fight the ban, or try to defy the law. But unless a major organization like the ACLU steps in, I don’t see any of these shops re-opening soon. Local Pagans (and Pagans traveling through) may want to keep their heads down unless they want to face arrest.

ADDENDUM: Lupa digs up the (extremely detailed) text of the law.

“A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree if he pretends for gain or lucre, to tell fortunes or predict future events, by cards, tokens, the inspection of the head or hands of any person, or by the age of anyone, or by consulting the movements of the heavenly bodies, or in any other manner, or for gain or lucre, pretends to effect any purpose by spells, charms, necromancy, or incantation, or advises the taking or administering of what are commonly called love powders or potions, or prepares the same to be taken or administered…”

That definition is so broad as to include just about any act of religion.