The Perils of Spiritual Counseling

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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.