Virginia Court Says Divination Not A Religious Practice

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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.