(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania’s anti-fortune telling laws created a national stir earlier this month after local law enforcement issued a warning about tarot readings to a metaphysical store owner in York County.
Hanover Police Chief Chad E. Martin told Beck Lawrence – who runs Serpent’s Key Shoppe and Sanctuary in Hanover and uses they/them pronouns – could be fined or prosecuted for offering tarot readings to their customers.
While the outdated law goes largely unenforced, the news concerns members of the alternative spiritual community across the state. Lawrence has also contacted a civil rights attorney to overturn the statute, according to their social media posts.
“Everyone’s talking about it. It makes me wonder if I still want to work in this industry,” said a Carlisle-based tarot reader who declined to be named for this article. Practitioners say the fear is widespread that politically motivated agendas could lead to literal witch-hunts across the state, impacting hundreds of businesses.
In the neighboring city of York, an annual holistic expo boasts over 20 booths featuring intuitive readers of varying kinds. Hanover alone is home to three different metaphysical shops, and online readings have flourished globally as New Age beliefs have cycled back into fashion, largely fueled by social media.
Across the state, mediums, card readers, and other intuitive practitioners are well aware of the law and use similar language to the signs you can see hanging in Lawrence’s shop:
“All readings and questions answered should at no time be regarded as legal, medical, financial, psychological, or business fact and are subject to your own interpretation and judgement. For legal reasons I must advise you that these readings are for entertainment purposes only.”
“For entertainment purposes only” isn’t just a painful statement to make for many practitioners like Lawrence whose use of tarot cards and other divinatory tools are part of a larger spiritual practice. Intended to protect them against the law, they say it also diminishes the ability to claim protection for the practice as part of their First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
“Governments can’t pick and choose which belief systems are protected,” said Vic Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Walczak believes the law is unconstitutional and that attempts to enforce it would quickly fall apart in court, though the fact that it’s there “opens the door for misuse.”
Misuse can harm some communities more than others, advocates say, leading time-honored professions open to criminalization as part of more widespread systematic oppression.
They point to the Roma people, often known by the pejorative term “gypsy,” who have long been synonymous with fortune-telling. The Romani people have faced legal and ethnic persecution across Europe and the United States for centuries – which is part of the reason they adopt a nomadic lifestyle.
“We tend not to get the same kind of respect that fortune-tellers from other ethnic groups get, and we’re more likely to be accused of scams than non-Romani fortune tellers,” said Romani activist Jezmina von Thiele.
Von Thiele said she tells her clients that “Roma are known for fortune telling because centuries of persecution really limited the jobs that they could work.”
Scams, however, do exist within the world of fortune telling, and some notable cases have seen extortion of millions from clients who believed they were under threat from unseen forces.
Mitch Horowitz, who wrote about similar ordinances in his book Occult America, discussed the line between belief and fraud in an interview with The Center Square.
“Generally, in NY state these statutes haven’t been used to harass spiritual practitioners, unlike in the PA case,” he said. “I consider the latter patently unconstitutional and I cannot imagine a court challenge to it would stand up. It seems a clear case of cultural discrimination versus the policing of extortion.”
Comparisons have been made between fortune tellers and other professional and faith-based practices – like the stock market, casinos, and mainstream religious institutions. Ultimately, it appears that whether the issue is one of free speech, freedom of religion, or freedom for individuals to exercise their capital how they choose, the law is unlikely to find the support it would need to be enforced.
The question remains, however, whether it’s an appropriate use to keep it on the books, leaving space for taxpayer dollars to be spent pursuing personal agendas.
The Hanover Police Department declined to comment for this article. When contacted to see if there was legislative interest in amending the laws to reflect modern practice, Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, and Sen. Kristin Philips-Hill, R-Jacobus – whose districts are home to the Serpent’s Key Shoppe – did not respond.
As for Lawrence, they say they just want to keep serving Hanover, promoting tolerance, environmental stewardship, and community. They’re seeking a provision within the law to allow legitimate practitioners to apply for a permit, a solution that could potentially generate some revenue for the state.
“Anyone who’s running a reputable business should be OK with that, in my opinion,” they said.