Fortune Teller Wins First Amendment Case in Louisiana July 18, 2012

Fortune Teller Wins First Amendment Case in Louisiana

A Louisiana fortune-teller and Tarot card reader has just successfully defended her First Amendment rights — but not the rights you’re (probably) thinking of.

The city of Alexandria, LA enacted an ordinance in 2011 that made it “unlawful for any person to engage in the business or practice of palmistry, card reading, astrology, fortune-telling, phrenology, mediums or activities of a similar nature within the city, regardless of whether a fee is charged.” The ordinance carried a fine of up to $500 for each day it was violated.

Rachel Adams, a fifth-generation psychic, “claims that she was born with the ability to ‘understand and appreciate Tarot cards, telling of futures, psychic abilities and palmistry.’” She accepts voluntary donations for her services. When she attempted to obtain the necessary permits to operate her business, she was visited by police and issued a summons; she was to appear in criminal court last September.

Rachel Adams (via The Town Talk)

Instead, Adams filed a civil lawsuit, claiming that the ordinance was unconstitutional.

Adams asserted several constitutional rights violations, most notably that the ordinance abridged her First Amendment-guaranteed freedoms. However, it appears that her best argument was not freedom of religion, but freedom of speech. To obtain summary judgment — that is, a speedier resolution — on her claim, she dropped the religious claim and successfully argued that the ordinance banned speech based on its content, and that the city did not have a compelling-enough reason to ban it.

The federal district court accepted the magistrate’s recommendations and declared the ordinance unconstitutional (PDF). This means that Adams and other fortune-tellers in her area can operate without threat of arrest. As a district court decision, however, it only applies locally — unless the city chooses to appeal the decision and loses.

The magistrate’s rationale didn’t touch the question of whether fortune-telling was a legitimate religion or whether banning it abridged Adams’ free exercise rights — his only fear was government oppression of unpopular speech. However, and perhaps unwittingly, his free speech argument is among the best arguments for the separation of church and state I’ve ever heard:

The danger of the government deciding what is true and not true, real and unreal, should be obvious. For example, some might say that a belief in God or in a particular religion, for example, or in the “Book of Revelations” is not supported by demonstrable facts. Books that repeat the predictions of Nostradamus and the daily newspaper horoscope could be banned under the City’s reasoning.

The magistrate here seems to be raising the spectre of a threat to ban the Bible, but the argument cuts both ways. The government cannot choose to protect only the types of religious speech it agrees with. Perhaps all the legislators desperately enacting anti-Sharia law statutes, decrying the use of public funds for Islamic schools, and declaring 2012 the “Year of the Bible” would do well to take note — it is not their job to decide the truth or veracity of any one belief as opposed to others. That’s the kind of “government oppression ” our Constitution protects against.

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  • Ernest Perce V

    FUCKING AWESOME!  Iam THESAINT’SREVENGE and I was hoping she would win!

  • Gunstargreen

    Maybe she’s a fraud or maybe she’s genuinely nuts, but one thing’s for certain, she has the right to parade around pretending to be psychic if she wants to. Bravo on the ruling.

  • Stev84

    The city argued that she committed fraud, which is still true. They didn’t just attempt to ban something they didn’t like for no reason.

    They could create a scheme to license psychics where they would need to prove their psychic abilities in standardized tests. None of them would pass.

  • So those who provide religious “services” should also have to prove that their abilities are real, right? Good luck getting that to pass Constitutional muster!

    From the standpoint of what is allowed or what is licensed, there’s no difference between religion and palm readers. Indeed, why should a psychic need a business license at all if a pastor doesn’t?

  • Kai Price

    I don’t think it should be necessary for self-declared “psychics” to prove their psychic abilities. After all, we don’t require psychiatrists to demonstrate their own sanity, let alone that what they offer has any tangible value.

  • John M.

    Psychic or christian, same thing, neither can prove they are real. 

  • MyScienceCanBeatUpYourGod

    I’m totally down for that if every religious institution were subject to the same scrutiny. Let’s start with faith healers.

  • TrussellBandit29
  • Conspirator

    Strange that Louisiana would be opposed to this.  Isn’t that something just goes along with the character of New Orleans?  They got all sorts of Voodoo stuff in the French Quarter for the tourists.  

    Psychics are mostly harmless, that is until they repeatedly sucker money out of someone who is dealing with a loss, either by claiming to speak to the dead or help find a missing person.  If the state were cracking down on them for that, they’d also have to go after religious organizations that do similar things.  

  • Toast

    People desperate or spiritual enough to go to a psychic just want to be assured that things are gonna be okay for them. Just like any religion, really. Whether any of us believe it to be true or not, some people do believe in that power. And no government body has the right to take away that belief or fine people for saying that they play with cards and “read palms”.  Should they license church officials for their belief in god? Or whether or not prayer works? Or miracles happen? That’s not really possible. 

  • Stev84

    She wasn’t providing a religious service. If you’re so concerned with protecting the equally fraudulent services of churches, they can get one of those popular religious exemptions. That would allow them to steal people’s money while shutting down “psychics” who operate on their own.

  • 3lemenope

    The city argued that she committed fraud, which is still true.

    Fraud as a legal category is a great deal narrower than fraud in the lay sense of “being fake”. Garden variety psychics in jurisdictions that use the common law rules for fraud don’t meet the definition in a few different ways. One important element usually missing is that in order for fraud to occur, the alleged defrauder must intend for the person defrauded to act upon the fraudulent information; that level of intent is not normally present in the case of a commercial “psychic”.

    On the other hand, if the psychic believes themselves to be the real deal, then a different element is missing; the actual intent to defraud. In order for fraud to occur, the “psychic” must believe that their advice is false; if they believe it to be true, whatever it is it isn’t fraud.

    There are a few ways a psychic act can result in a fraud charge, but usually these involve the advice being to directly financially benefit the psychic if followed. “The spirits of the aether have told me to tell you that you should give me your house/belongings/money/estate” gets closer to the intent to provoke action and intent to defraud requirements.

    When you think about it, these are common sense rules; else it would be quite easy to accidentally criminalize simple bad advice, or badly sourced advice.

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  • I’m not sure of your point. Mine is that churches and psychics are equally fraudulent, and I can’t think of a single rational reason why one should have protected status while the other doesn’t.

    A psychic is certainly providing a religious service by any reasonable definition of the term.

  • I find this whole issue troubling. I’m not convinced there is that big of a different between knowingly defrauding someone and being ignorant. Especially in the case of being ignorant over many years. But like you said what bout analysts? People who sit around pulling numbers out of their ass about the next big tech device. Should they be fined? In the matters of law though it doesn’t matter what I think. Especially since I know so very little in the first place.

  • Cutencrunchy

    Free speech should be protected – BUT there should be a protection against defrauding the elderly or gullible… scams for money – selling people snake oil in the form of religion or demon removal or after life front row seats or protection from fromptodorians from fromtodore…  at some point a service needs to show a result or state ‘for entertainment purposes only’ as is written on the bible (in the fine print)… the only reason this isn’t more obvious is our religions and Gov use just those tactics to manipulate it’s users.

  • DiscalceateHugs12
  • Edmond

    “unlawful for any person to engage in the business or practice of palmistry, card reading, astrology, fortune-telling, phrenology, mediums or activities of a similar nature within the city, regardless of whether a fee is charged”

    I think if a fee is not charged, then you could hardly call it a “business”.  But if they’re banning the business OR the practice, fee or NO fee, then it sounds like they’re just trying to ban witchcraft.  Of COURSE this is unconstitutional.

  • M J Shepherd

    New Orleans, yes, anything to sell the Cajun. This was in Alexandria though, way north Louisiana.

  • StarStuff

    But then every huxter in town should be shut down for fraud.  Religion, hokumpokum, bait & switch big boxes, gypsies selling you a new driveway…

  • As an atheist I would oppose Sharia Law not because of its religious links but because  it is a stone-age legal system with a perverted definition of justice.

  • Perhaps all the legislators desperately enacting anti-Sharia law statutes, decrying the use of public funds for Islamic schools, and declaring 2012 the “Year of the Bible” would do well to take note — it is not their job to decide the truth or veracity of any one belief as opposed to others. That’s the kind of “government oppression ” our Constitution protects against.

    Wait, are you saying that anti-Sharia statutes and denying public funds to Islamic schools are government oppression of religion? Those seem to me to be clear church-state separation issues. Religious law should not have anything to do with our court system, and public money shouldn’t be going to religious schools.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    It all depends on the specifics. Voucher systems that support private schools with the intent that they benefit Christian schools are skirting close to the edge and might be subject to a Constitutional challenge. Someone who could show damages would have to make the complaint first, I suspect. Hard to say where the sympathies of a court might lie.

    Allowing private Christian schools access to public funds but not another religion like Islam would really put the cat amongst the pigeons. The SCOTUS has already settled this issue.

    What would the reaction be if $cientology decides to apply, I wonder? 

    Here in BC, one of the more egregious ways the FLDS are milking the public is to get hundreds of thousands each year in funding for their private ‘schools’. Few students go beyond grade 8. They teach the girls little more than reading, writing, cooking and cleaning. Most boys will be put to work as cheap labour and then kicked out before they can start to compete for wives, so there’s not much incentive to teach them any more than mechanics and wood and metal work.

    There are of  course standards for the curriculum they are supposed to be following but they seem to be adept at dodging them while still collecting the money.

    That only leaves all the ‘single’ mothers and their many children to claim welfare to milk the system from another angle.

  • A good 80% of doing a reading for another person is basic psychology and one-on-one counseling. The other 20% is a combination of knowing the cards/runes, keeping a straight face (the hardest part, sometimes!), and having the patience to deal with people. Most importantly, it is my ethical responsibility to direct a person to the appropriate resources when it comes to legal matters, health issues, and domestic violence or child abuse. (I also work completely for free — if someone wishes to compensate me in some small way, I will accept it.)

  • Helanna

    I’ve been considering learning to do Tarot cards for a while now, just for fun. I figured if I ever did it for other people, it would mostly be learning to do basic cold-reading (which has always fascinated me) and to fine-tune vague omens of good to people. Obviously, I wouldn’t be claiming to be psychic.

    That’s one of the reasons this law surprised me. I’ve visited psychics before, at fairs and carnivals where it’s like $2. It’s a bit of harmless fun. Of course, I tend to forget that there are people who actually believe that A) there are psychics and B) they make their livings at carnivals . . .

  • Great article and conclusion.

  • Sindigo

    You don’t need to “learn to do tarot”. I dabbled with it a good few years ago (when I was young and impressionable stupid) and, at least in my experience the books all disagree with each other about what the cards “mean”. So I just made it up as I went along. None of my friends who were into it seemed to notice. If they ever asked what setup I was using as I laid out the cards I just made up something mystical sounding. Like, “Sacred oak” or similar.

  • Jenny

    I actually collect tarot cards. Never really learned how to use them. Have you seen the beautiful decks they have out there? They’re works of art with wonderful colourful and sometimes dramatic imagery. I wonder if we could invent a card game using tarot decks. 

  • Sindigo

    I have seen a variety of decks over the years. I used to go to the Mind, Body and Spirit shows when I was younger and you’re right there are some beautiful examples. 

    Any card game can be played with tarot deck if you remove a few cards as the card deck we’re all familiar with evolved from the Tarot and there are games which involve the whole Tarot deck that use the 21 special cards as trumps of various sorts.

    I’m into the idea of having a sceptical tarot deck though. Penn Jilette as the fool?

    Thinking about it though, I’m really interested in a evangelical X’tian Tarot deck. Imagine how offended they would be with their images on a work of the devil like Tarot.

  • interesting case… 

  • The Other Weirdo

     My politically incorrect idea is that if they don’t like our justice system, they can go to a part of the world that’s more palatable, or adapt and move on. Same goes for all the other religions.

  • The Other Weirdo


  • Tom Spademan

    The magistrate even made  a joke in the middle of his opinion.  The City argued that a reading is commercial speech, which is less protected than “content based speech” (especially political speech).  The court’s response:  “This attempt at ‘alchemy’ by the City to turn content based speech into commercial speech just doesn’t shine.”    I love that.  🙂    

  • Tom Spademan

    Also, look for the city to try again, under laws governing unfair trade practices.  

  • Tom Spademan

    Oh, he made another:  “The city ordinance…is not the least restrictive means of protecting against the nefarious behavior of fortune tellers that the City ‘forsees.’ ”  😀

  • Tom Spademan

    And again!  “Based on the foregoing analysis, it appears that a decision in favor of the City is not in the cards.”   

  • Xeon2000

    It’s a fundamentalist Mormon sect that still practices polygamy.

  • Tainda

    Fucking Latter Day Saints…..

    Kidding, it’s the Fundamentalist group of LDS.

  • Edwardlegohands

     By the same logic, all priests might also be asked to prove that they really are speaking on behalf of a divine being before they’re allowed to conduct religious services.

  • There is at least one: And in France if people are talking about tarot, they are more likely to be talking about the card game than about doing a reading, at least in my experience.

  • Jenny

    Say no more!

    There’s a huge community of tarot collectors and users at aeclectic, I mostly like the huge library of cards. There’s also a section for science tarot decks. 

  • Sindigo

    I love the universe cards. Very pretty.

    I’m amazed that the Jesus cards only have two jokers though…

  • kenneth

    There should be a provision in law where public officials who persist in meritless actions or use their office for personal crusades should be exposed to personal liability for the results. If they pursue stupid legal fights against the advice of attorneys, any damages paid out to the opposing parties should be garnisheed from their wages and pensions.

  • Stev84

    At a carnival it’s mostly harmless, but here are hucksters who run this stuff as a big business. There are television channels where people do readings and prophecies. And the owners of those damn well know that it’s all nonsense. There are people who get addicted to this and then owe thousands of dollars. At some point it simply becomes fraud.

  • How is that any different from the religious television channels that prey on their own addicts? The owners of those also know it’s nonsense. There’s simply no difference. If we are going to allow one organization or person with a “product” based on the supernatural to operate legally, we need to allow all of them.

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