This week, the Virginia Federal District Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Chesterfield County’s fortune-telling regulations.
Patricia Moore-King, working under the name of Psychic Sophie, is a psychic practitioner, spiritual counselor, Tarot writer and teacher. She challenged the law after being denied a business license back in 2009.
The county deemed her a ‘fortune-teller’, and rejected her application. In Chesterfield, a fortune-teller is defined as,
Any person or establishment engaged in the occupation of occult science including a fortune-teller, palmist, astrologist, numerologist, clairvoyant, craniologist, phrenologist, card reader, spiritual reader, tea leaf reader, prophet, psychic or advisor or who in any other manner claims or pretends to tell fortunes or claims or pretends to disclose mental faculties of individuals for any form of compensation.
Though fortune-telling, or psychic reading isn’t technically illegal in Chesterfield County, the rules are so tight it might as well be.
To open a psychic business, the operator must start by paying a $300 tax in order to obtain a business license. It’s worth noting that most businesses in the county that earn less than $10,000 a year don’t have to pay such a tax. Nightclubs and adult businesses only have to pay $100.
In addition to the tax, a ‘fortune-teller’ has to submit five personal references from residents of the county confirming their ‘good character and honest demeanor,’ and that they’re ‘bona fide county residents’.
The references are sent to the Chief of Police who can then choose to do a criminal background check on the applicant and make further inquires about their moral character. A Police Permit must be granted in order for a license to be approved, and the Chief of Police has final discretion.
Performing fortune-telling services without a license can lead to fines of up to $500 for each offense.
If a license is approved, the psychic business can only be established in the General Business District. Other businesses zoned to this district include adult businesses, pawnbrokers, auction houses, material reclamation yards, and vehicle impoundment lots.
Even within the general business zone, and while holding a license, there’s no guarantee a psychic reader can set up shop. They must first obtain a Conditional Use Permit, which may or may not be granted. Both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors must review the application. Either can reject it, or prescribe additional conditions to the rules already in place.
In her complaint, King argued that her work constitutes free speech according to the US Constitution, and that the zoning laws and onerous license procedures inhibit her freedom of expression and discriminate against her based on her beliefs, viewpoint, and content of expression.
She also maintained that the regulations violated her freedom of religion. She felt that by defining her work as ‘fortune-telling’ and ‘occult’, and restricting that activity, she and her beliefs were being discriminated against without any compelling governmental interest for doing so.
The Virginia Federal District Court disagreed. They decided that her predictions and counseling services were ‘inherently deceptive commercial speech, and that the regulation of them is reasonably drawn.’
They rejected the argument that King’s rights were violated under the First or Fourteenth Amendments, or the Religious Land Use claims she brought forward.
It’s a disappointing decision. I hope it gets appealed and eventually overturned.
If you’re interested in reading more about it. Jason Pitzi-Waters has been covering the case for a while and has an excellent post about it up on his blog. There’s a fantastic quote from Mary Greer at the bottom of the article.