Fortune Teller Deregulation

It takes more than a crystal ball, a set of tarot cards, and some New Age music to make it as a psychic in Massachusetts.

State law requires all fortune tellers to be licensed by local authorities. But rather than certifying their clairvoyance (or even their acting abilities), would-be psychics must instead prove they have lived for at least one year in the towns where they plan to start their businesses.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), assistant Senate majority leader, has sponsored a bill that would eliminate this residency requirement. “You should not be restricted in setting up your business based upon where you live,” says Rosenberg, who was asked by the city of Northampton to challenge the law. “I can’t think of another commercial enterprise in which you must be a resident of the community in which you plan to practice your profession. I think that’s unfair and it ought to be fixed.”

Rosenberg’s bill, which passed the Senate in January, but, at press time, had not been taken up by the House, was prompted after at least one applicant in Northampton was denied a license because of the residency rule.

Fortune-teller licenses are mandated by the state but issued by local officials–usually a licensing board, clerk, or board of selectmen. Among the 44 businesses for which Massachusetts requires local licenses are tanning salons, shooting galleries, mobile home parks, junk and antique dealers, caterers, and bowling alleys. In Northampton, these duties are handled by a three-member license commission appointed by the mayor. There were four licensed fortune tellers in the city in 1997 and 1998, and one in 1999, but none chose to renew their licenses for this year.

Sen. Michael Morrissey (D-Quincy), Senate chairman of the Government Regulations Committee, says the state has a lengthy history of licensing such businesses, but the requirements for fortune tellers are unfair. “There is a variety of activities that society has chosen to regulate, this being one of them,” says Morrissey. “What we’re trying to do is make it more reasonable for people to conduct their businesses so that they don’t have to live in the community where they may want to set up.”

According to Morrissey, the statute governing fortune-teller licenses dates back at least 30 years. The original intent of the law, he says, was likely to give individual towns the authority to decide how many of such businesses they wanted to operate within their communities. “Their rationale was probably that they didn’t want a proliferation. You don’t want 10 psychic businesses on the same street,” says Morrissey.

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But prejudice may be behind the state’s stringent residency requirement, according to Rosenberg. “I suspect the origins of this have to do, in part at least, [with] some discriminatory action because fortune tellers historically were viewed with great suspicion and were seen as being nomadic, and we didn’t want any of them in our community,” he says. “So if you were going to practice this profession, we at least wanted you to be living permanently within the community and not be coming in and out.”

Jacqueline Tennis, an employee at Lilah’s Card & Palm Readings in Boston, says the current licensing law places unfair restrictions on people in the fortune-telling business. “If anyone else wants to start a business, they’re allowed to do it right away,” she says. “Nobody else has to follow this kind of law.”