RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — An attorney for a Virginia psychic told a federal appeals court Tuesday that local zoning and business licensing regulations violate his client's religious and free-speech rights.
Roman P. Storzer urged a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court's ruling that the regulations are minimal and that Chesterfield County's Patricia Moore-King's practices are deceptive. The court usually takes several weeks or months to rule.
"The county doesn't like what Ms. King has to say," Storzer told the panel during a 45-minute hearing. He said the regulations amount to unconstitutional "prior restraint on her speech."
His argument did not seem to go over well with the court, especially with Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III.
"These are pretty run-of-the-mill zoning and licensing measures," Wilkinson said. "They're not regulating speech. The ordinance here is not trying to chase her out of the county."
The court also seemed skeptical that King's practices — which include Tarot card readings, energy healing, astrology, clairvoyance and spiritual counseling — amount to religious beliefs that are entitled to constitutional protection. Wilkinson said protection is not limited to organized religion, but suggested that if King's practices can be called religious "it becomes an open-ended concept that has no boundaries at all."
Storzer said King, who operates as "Psychic Sophie," believes in "new age spirituality" and uses prayer in her counseling.
But David Robinson, an assistant county attorney, argued that King's activities cannot be classified as religious.
"The First Amendment protects free exercise of religion, not a way of life, a philosophy, no matter how admirable that way of life may be," Robinson said.
King's office is in a suburban Richmond office complex that also includes psychologists and other professionals. The county is trying to enforce a zoning ordinance that would require King to move to a more industrial area occupied by towing lots, lumber yards and similar businesses.
In his ruling against King, U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney said the ordinance "prevents fortune tellers from absorbing a patina of legitimacy from their neighbors, or even taking their patients."
King said after the appeals court hearing that she has no such motive for wanting to stay in her current office.
"I believe in psychology as well, and I'm able to refer clients I can't help to those in my building," she said. "Also, it's comfortable for me. It's not in an area with auto reclamation yards, and people don't have to go out of their way to get there."
King also claims that business licensing fees and regulations, including a requirement that she obtain a permit from the chief of police, are unduly onerous.
She said after the hearing that she is challenging the regulations because she is seeking "acceptance and understanding of what I do."