Outlook Finally Good For Vermont Fortune-Tellers

September 03, 2008 03:58 PM
by Rachel Balik
A Vermont town has struck down a law against fortune-telling, determining it violated the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Psychotherapist Takes Fortune-Telling Law to Task

Jean O’Neal, a psychotherapist who practiced feng shui, was the impetus behind the decision of authorities in St. Johnsbury, Vt., to lift a ban prohibiting fortune-tellers. O’Neal told the Associated Press that according to the 1966 law, the way she organized her office was illegal. Some officials disagreed with her belief that feng shui was actually banned by the ordinance, and town manager Mike Welch added that the law was not actually enforced.

But O’Neal and others felt that the law was limiting, dangerous and unconstitutional. Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar, said, “The government has no power to determine whether or not these people are committing fraud.” According to Haynes, what seems like fraud to one individual may represent another’s personal or religious beliefs.

Opinion and Analysis: Fortune-Telling: Elaborate Con or Religious Ritual?

But while St. Johnsbury tarot-card reader Maria Pawlowski told the AP that soothsaying was “as natural to me as breathing,” many are skeptical of fortune telling, arguing it is nothing more than an elaborate scam. Last year, Philadelphia rounded up numerous psychics, citing a law similar to the one in Vermont and which had also been unenforced for some time. After police shut down numerous shops, one psychic protested, “what we do is entertainment.” But a columnist for the Drexel University paper, the Triangle, argued that while some psychics might be offering harmless entertainment, most are “cunning con artists that swindle inordinate sums of money out of the gullible and vulnerable.”

While many psychics may be con artists, Hayes would argue that according to the First Amendment, “people have the right to believe in these things.”

And there are those who genuinely believe in the mystical, and when towns enforce strict legislation against these practices, it is a religious affront to them. In Livingston Parish, La., a self-described Wiccan priest sued the town for passing an ordinance against taking money for soothsaying. He told the Louisiana Advocate, “To dictate what you can and cannot do in a spiritual sense” is against the Constitution. He claimed that churches often accepted donations or fees, and that the new law was designed to give preference to Christianity over other faiths. He argued that he should be allowed to charge some money for what he called “divinations.” His suit, which claimed violation of free speech and asserted that the wording of the law was vague, was not ultimately successful, however.

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