Unforseeable Future

April Fools! This is the real cover ...

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And yet governments around Florida rely on an old tool to keep the intuitives in check: the handy-dandy fortuneteller ordinance.

"They are not allowed in the city," says the Temple Terrace clerk's office. In Tampa, "there's no city law saying they can't exist," says Gail Garcia of the downtown clerk's office. She does a quick check and comes back with the information that the license to do business in Tampa costs $551.21 a year.

The city of Bradenton smiles on psychics. One recently applied for a license to read at a private house in the city. Her vital stats were put on record. No fee was charged.

Hillsborough County regulates psychics, clairvoyants, numerologists and the like under a 47-page occupational-license ordinance updated in 1995. It seems a bunch of spiritualists or readers or Tarot card-types were springing up in Brandon, creating a sort of woo-woo ghetto.

"I remember that Commissioner Jan Platt was surprised that this was coming before the board," says a county employee. "We used to joke with Commissioner Joe Chillura that someone had put a curse on him."

Rosemary Tel is a Tampa native who gives readings under the name Mystic Rose. With a partner, she owns Angel Heart Gifts at Kennedy Boulevard and Himes Avenue. She and two or three other psychics give readings. She estimates that Tampa and Hillsborough licensing requirements — plus a bonding demand — cost her between $1,000 and $1,500 a year.

By far the most entertaining story comes out of St. Petersburg.

About a year ago, the Pinellas County Commission drafted an ordinance the local American Civil Liberties Union would have battled in a heartbeat, according to lawyer and ACLU board member Bruce Howie.

"The authority basically was trying to stamp out the so-called fortuneteller. They apparently had visions of gypsies with wagons, dancing around the campfire. The idea was they wanted to stop everyone who was taking a fee in exchange for telling the future. We thought that would apply to any number of occupations, including stockbrokers."

Not only was a the psychic supposed to be licensed, but also he or she "had to permit law-enforcement officers to enter your business any time during business hours to examine your financial books." Psychics, readers, mediums and others couldn't set up shop within 500 feet of each other. "Apparently they are concerned about a red-light district for fortunetellers," Howie says.

Some of the soon-to-be-regulated sought Howie's help. They shuttled back and forth between Howie and the county attorneys, relaying the ACLU's First Amendment objections to the government lawyers. Challenging the ordinance seemed like a slam-dunk.

"If anything, they were a bit heavy handed, wanting to inspect their books as if they were already guilty of a criminal offense."

One possible avenue was to object to a clamp down on religion. Sometimes a knee-jerk reaction to a religion that is "nondeistic is to think that something must be wrong with it," Howie says. "If it (the psychic operation) conducts itself as a church, would it be a First Amendment violation to license it? We (the ACLU) were in the background still researching and trying to decide how to approach it when we learned they had revised the ordinance. I think they realized that the ordinance was too broad and, to their credit, they corrected it."

Howie's spiritualist constituency left happy because the newly revised ordinance left them a loophole. As long as they accepted a donation rather than charged a fee, they would fall under church-and-state protections.

You don't need a crystal ball to know the ACLU in Florida stands ready to take up the cause of the next psychic who falls on the wrong side of a local licensing law.

This might be a good place to talk about the metaphysical pecking order.

Spiritualists, clairvoyants, palm readers and others who offer guidance for the greater good are several cuts above the reader who tells a boiler-plate fortune and seems to care only about the money. Some hotline psychics don't pretend to do more than metaphorically hold your hand and say flattering things as you let off steam.

But there are subtler distinctions.

In Cassadaga (Florida's famous spiritualists' camp near Daytona Beach), I recently got a taste of office politics in the spirit world. If you ever wonder what psychics say at the water cooler, it goes something like this: "Spiritualists and mediums think they're the only ones who are real and are so much better than psychics." I won't go into any more detail, because I don't want to get on the bad side of any of those folks.

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