Vermont Town Repeals Ban on Fortune-Telling

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Behold, the future is being revealed and it looks bright for fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, tarot card readers and anyone claiming to contact spirits in this corner of northern New England.

Soothsaying might still be banned in some parts of the country, but St. Johnsbury has repealed the ordinance against peering into the future that it had on the books since 1966.

"When the ordinance was lifted, I actually felt a large weight lifting from my shoulders," said Maria Pawlowski, a tarot card reader. "It was very oppressive to have to refrain from something that was as natural to me as breathing."

Fear of fraud has prompted many communities to ban fortune-telling but critics say it's not government's place to decide whether such personal beliefs or practices are fraudulent.

Last year in Philadelphia, city inspectors shut down more than a dozen psychics, astrologers and tarot-card readers after discovering a decades-old state law that still bans fortune-telling for profit.

Also last year, Louisiana's Livingston Parish made soothsaying, fortune-telling, palm reading and crystal-ball gazing illegal; a Wiccan minister filed a challenge to the law in federal court.

Other laws are on the books or have been challenged in Nebraska, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina and Oklahoma, said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Washington.

A ban in Lincoln, Neb., was struck down by a federal appeals court in 1998 as unconstitutional.

"People have the right to believe in these things and to predict the future, to say what they think and even to charge money for it," Haynes said. "The government has no power to determine whether or not these people are committing fraud."

Critics of such bans warn that other activities could be called into question if the government has the power to decide whether fortune-telling is fraudulent or illegal.

"We have people who predict what the stock market is going to do. We have people who predict the weather and get paid for it," said Haynes.

St. Johnsbury lifted its ban in July at the urging of psychotherapist Jean O'Neal, who said the ordinance outlawed something she practices: feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of harmonizing one's environment for health and financial benefits.

"I said something needs to be done about this. This is ridiculous," O'Neal said. "The way I lay out my office ... it wasn't legal."

The ordinance had left little to chance, banning practitioners from telling fortunes or attempting "to reveal future events in the life of another or by means of occult or psychic powers, faculties or forces, clairvoyance, psychometry, spirit-mediumship, prophecy, astrology, palmistry, necromancy, cards, talismans, charms, potions, magnetism or magnetized articles or substances, oriental mysteries or magic of any kind or nature; to undertake or pretend to find or restore lost or stolen money or property, gold or silver or other ore or metal or natural product; or to undertake or pretend to unite, or reunite or to find lovers, husbands, wives, lost relatives or friends."

However, Town Manager Mike Welch says it was never enforced.

Town officials say they don't know why the ordinance was passed in the first place. Perhaps there were concerns about "clairvoyants and the like," said Town Attorney Ed Zuccaro.

"Someone was afraid," O'Neal said.

Since the ban has been lifted, O'Neal can now feel comfortable practicing feng shui. She also has opened her space to Pawlowski to offer card readings.

She says she's open to all kinds of practices that help people heal, and hopes to hold a holistic health exposition in town that could draw other practitioners.

"I'm very pleased," O'Neal said of the repeal. "I think it means that people are be open minded to other ways of being healthy."