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Lucky 8-Ball Says: Signs Point To Legal Trouble for Local Bans Of Fortune Tellers

The heartbreak of an inaccurate Ouija board

The city of Petoskey has banned fortunetelling since 2014. Its ordinance states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in fortunetelling or pretend to tell fortunes for hire, gain, or reward.” Violators may be punished by jail (up to 93 days), a fine of $500, or both.

In early 2022 resident Sara Snider sent an email to city officials, explaining her objections to the ban. The Petoskey city council then voted to repeal it at a Feb. 21 meeting.

At that meeting, former Petoskey director of public safety John Calabrese said he had requested the 2014 ban and opposes its repeal. Fortunetelling, he said, creates a potential for increased fraud and crime. He suggested a compromise position, which was to regulate fortunetellers but not ban them. The city council rejected that idea.

Petoskey is not the only city that devotes official time and resources to banning fortunetellers or imposing licensure mandates on individual fortunetellers. After the Michigan Legislature repealed a statewide ban in 1994, some cities adopted their own licensure mandates. Warren enacted what may be one of the nation’s strictest licensure regimes. Since 2010, anyone who charges money to tell a fortune must first apply for a license, undergo a police background check and pay annual fees of $160.

Bay City also adopted a licensure mandate in 2004, which comes with a $25 annual fee.

An ordinance in Kalamazoo imposes an outright ban on “phrenology, palmistry, or prognosticating or prophesying the future.” The American Civil Liberties Union opposed that ordinance in 2014. In 2015, it reported that the city attorney had recommended a repeal and told police not to enforce the ban.

The Kalamazoo law is still on the books. The ACLU has not responded to an email asking for an update on its position.

In 2014, the ACLU stated in a press release: "If you think Kalamazoo is attracting some bad karma, you’re right. Courts across the country have struck down similar bans as violations of the First Amendment. And rightly so: governments should not be deciding which spiritual beliefs have merit and which are fraudulent. Courts grant religious counselors from mainstream religions a great deal of deference when it comes to licensing requirements and negligence lawsuits. As the Supreme Court of Utah has noted, wading into the wisdom or correctness of spiritual advice would necessarily lead to 'an excessive government entanglement with religion.'"

Otsego has its own ban. It is illegal in that city to “tell or pretend to tell fortunes by person, machine or otherwise for hire, gain, reward or profit, whether by means of cards, tokens, trances, inspection of the hands or skull, mind reading, consulting the movements of the heavenly bodies, or otherwise.”

Grand Rapids repealed its ban in 2014, along with a prohibition on spitting in public, according to WZZM, which called the bans archaic.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.