Federal judge blocks Tenn. town’s fortunetelling ban

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

EAST RIDGE, Tenn. — A federal judge in East Tennessee blocked East Ridge from enforcing a ban on fortunetellers Oct. 8, hours after a woman filed a lawsuit that says the ordinance violates her free-speech rights.

The court order signed by Chief U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier granted relief sought in a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on behalf of Candice Wohlfeil, a disabled grandmother who describes herself as a “spiritualist.”

The temporary restraining order allows Wohlfeil to reopen the booth where she had been reading tarot cards for three years before the city threatened a fine that forced her to shut down.

Her suit filed in Chattanooga contends the local ban on her business has forced her to close, violated her free-speech rights and left her unable to pay rent.

East Ridge City Attorney John Anderson did not return telephone messages left by the Associated Press in time for this story. Interim City Manager Eddie Phillips said he had not seen the lawsuit and declined comment.

Wohlfeil said East Ridge officials told her in 2007 that she was violating the ordinance, but she questioned the ban and never heard back. She said a code enforcement officer shut her down last month with a threat of a $500-per-violation fine.

Wohlfeil said that after the officer threatened a fine, she went to a City Council meeting and asked about enforcement of the ordinance. As of Oct. 8, she had not heard anything from the city.

The East Ridge ordinance says it “shall be unlawful for any person to conduct the business of, solicit for, or ply the trade of fortuneteller, clairvoyant, hypnotist, spiritualist, palmist, phrenologist, or other mystic endowed with supernatural powers,” with violations subject to a maximum possible penalty of $500 for each offense.

The ACLU’s court filing said numerous court cases have struck down bans on fortunetellers.

In 2004, a federal judge in Nashville struck down a ban on fortunetelling in Dickson.

An attorney assisting the ACLU in Wohlfeil’s suit, Donna L. Roberts of Nashville, said in an ACLU statement that the “First Amendment precludes the government from declaring which ideas are acceptable or not. Our client has the right to make predictions, whether for fun or profit, without the government discriminating against the content of her speech.”

In an interview Oct. 8, Wohlfeil said she charged $10 for each customer and never led anyone to believe she has any kind of supernatural powers.

She said her intent is to provide “comfort and understanding,” while directing people to take charge of their lives.

Wohlfeil said she would gladly buy a business license if it were available and that she isn’t a person who defies the law.

When informed about the restraining order, Wohlfeil said she planned to reopen her booth on Oct. 9.

“I am absolutely so thrilled,” she said.

Tags: ,