The Ongoing Psychic Wars

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Both Wren’s Nest and the Law and Magic blog point to an story about a man who is suing Montgomery County, Maryland. The problem? Fortune-telling has been banned there, and he wants to open a shop peddling precognition.

“A fortuneteller is suing Montgomery County after he learned he would not be allowed to open a shop in Bethesda because the county bans the business of forecasting the future. Attorneys for Nick Nefedro, previously of Key West, Fla., say county officials violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and discriminated against his “Roma,” or Gypsy, culture when they refused to give him a business license.”

The ban apparently dates back to the 1950s, and local officials don’t seem too keen to overturn the ordinance.

“Montgomery code dating back to the early 1950s prohibits collecting cash for predicting the future. “The underlying purpose is to prevent people from being taken advantage of, because it’s a scam,” Clifford Royalty, a lawyer in the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said … Council Members Nancy Floreen and Marc Elrich, who both sit on the economic development committee, said there did not seem to be support for repealing the measure. “There are a lot more important things for us to worry about,” Floreen said. Elrich said the county should not encourage businesses “that take advantage of people.” The penalty for fortunetelling in the county is a $250 fine.”

So it looks like Montgomery County will be joining Livingston Parish in court to battle over fortune-telling ordinances. But they should be careful, recently courts have been ruling against these laws, or cities have been finding them to be unenforceable. As the First Amendment Center puts it, having the government decide what beliefs are too “dangerous” to be legal can be a slippery slope to tyranny.

“It’s not that the unwary, the unknowing or the overly trusting don’t deserve to be protected from those who would bilk them of money or worse. But to echo Judge Echols, such frauds are crimes and there are already appropriate laws against them. Basing your behavior on a $25 prediction or gambling your peace-of-mind in sleight-of-hand may well be foolish. But I can predict with certainty that having government decide what we are free to believe is a worse alternative.”

Or, to quote the Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, “one person’s “paranormal” is another person’s religion”. Laws against divination can favor secular paternalism, or Biblical rigor, but they can also discriminate against belief systems that incorporate such practices into their day-to-day lives. To reiterate something I said in a previous post, let’s hope that Montgomery County will cease regulating where and how one can experience mystery and revelation.