Future bright for fortunetelling in Vt. town

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Soothsaying might still be banned in some parts of the country, but St. Johnsbury has repealed the ordinance against peering into the future that it had on the books since 1966.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

Also last year, Louisiana's Livingston Parish made soothsaying, fortunetelling, 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 fortunetelling 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.”

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.