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.
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.