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‘Spiritual counselor’ means business, court says

A self-described “spiritual counselor” has lost her federal-court bid to avoid regulation as a business by Chesterfield County.

Patricia Moore-King uses the trade name “Psychic Sophie,” and offers Tarot card readings and psychic and clairvoyant readings, in person, live online, over the telephone and via email. She leases office space in a business complex that includes licensed mental health professionals. Moore-King says she embraces various Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and New Age traditions, and describes her work as “spiritual counseling,” that “brings forth the inherent wisdom of the God-self within each of her client’s souls in order to help them achieve spiritual enlightenment,” according to her federal complaint.

Moore-King sued in Richmond U.S. District Court challenging the county’s zoning ordinance, business license tax ordinance and fortune teller permit ordinance. She says these ordinances violate her First Amendment rights and her rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Beginning in 2009, Moore-King objected to the county’s classification of her as a “fortune teller” under the county code. In January 2010, the county agreed to escrow the amount she would pay for a business license pending a decision on her lawsuit.

Richmond U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney emphasized the county ordinances “do not ban Psychic Sophie’s business of providing other-worldly advice to her customers.” The county may, however, regulate “inherently deceptive speech,” he said. Because Psychic Sophie makes predictions about the future, her “business is deceptive,” Gibney said. Even assuming her speech is not inherently deceptive, her conduct can be regulated as commercial speech.

Psychic Sophie is “not engaged in a religious exercise” and cannot sue under RLUIPA, Gibney said. Her eclectic mix of inspirations is an “overall lifestyle, not a belief system parallel to that of God in a traditional religion,” and her fee-for-service model stands apart from common religious practices.

Gibney granted summary judgment for the county in his Sept. 30 opinion.

By Deborah Elkins

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