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Virginia city repeals ban on psychic readings as industry grows and gains more acceptance

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Ashley Branton has earned a living as a psychic medium for seven years, helping a growing number of people with heavy choices about toxic relationships, home purchases and cross-country moves.
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Ashley Branton lays out tarot cards in the back of her shop, Velvet Witch, in Norfolk, Va., Thursday, June 13, 2024. The city of Norfolk recently repealed its 45-year-old ban on “the practice of palmistry, palm reading, phrenology or clairvoyance, for monetary or other compensation.” The 1979 ordinance was not being enforced, however, and the psychic services industry is growing. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Ashley Branton has earned a living as a psychic medium for seven years, helping a growing number of people with heavy choices about toxic relationships, home purchases and cross-country moves.

And while the tarot cards are never wrong, she said, they didn’t see this one coming.

The City Council in Norfolk, Virginia, repealed a 45-year-old ban this week on “the practice of palmistry, palm reading, phrenology or clairvoyance, for monetary or other compensation.”

Soothsaying, it turned out, had been a first-degree misdemeanor and carried up to a year in jail.

“I had no idea that was even a thing,” Branton said with a laugh Thursday among the crystals in her Norfolk shop, Velvet Witch, where she also performs tarot readings and psychic healings. “I'm glad it's never come down on me.”

It's unclear exactly why this city of 230,000 people on the Chesapeake Bay, home to the nation's largest Navy base, nullified the 1979 ordinance. Versions of the ban had existed for decades before.

Norfolk spokeswoman Kelly Straub said in an email that it was repealed “because it is no longer used.” City Council members said little during their vote Tuesday, although one joked that “somebody out there predicted that this was going to pass.”

Jokes aside, the city's repeal comes as the psychic services industry is growing in the U.S., generating an estimated $2.3 billion in revenue last year and employing 97,000 people, according to a 2023 report from market research firm IBIS World.

In late 2017, a Pew Research Center survey found that most American adults identify as Christians. But many also hold New Age beliefs, with 4 in 10 believing in the power of psychics. A 2009 survey for the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project found about 1 in 7 Americans had consulted a psychic.

Branton, 42, who previously worked as a makeup artist, said the market is expanding for psychic mediums because social media has fueled awareness. An aversion to organized religion also plays a role, along with the nation's divisive politics and a growing sense of uncertainty, particularly among millennials and younger generations.

“Ever since COVID, people have been carrying this weight. They’re just carrying so much,” Branton said.

“And people are starting to do inner work,” she continued. “They’re starting to take care of their mental health. And they’re starting to take care of the spiritual aspect."

Branton said she considers her work a calling. Psychic gifts run in her family, and she’s had them her whole life.

“I always had interactions with spirits,” she said. “I’ve always been an empath. I can feel people’s energies."

Branton said she's built up her clientele through word of mouth, without any advertising.

“I'm very proud of that,” she said. “There's going to be scammers and people out here doing this for just the money. Obviously, this is my way of living now. But it was never about money for me.”

In 2022, AARP warned of scam psychics who prey on “people who are grieving, lonely or struggling emotionally, physically or financially.”

And some bans remain in place. In October, the police chief in Hanover, Pennsylvania, told a witchcraft-themed store that any complaints about tarot card readings would prompt an investigation, The New York Times reported.

The police chief cited an old state law that makes it illegal to predict the future for money. In 2007, the city of Philadelphia cited the same law when it shut down more than a dozen psychics, astrologers and tarot-card readers, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Fortune telling bans stemmed from anti-witchcraft and anti-vagrancy laws in 18th century England, said Charles McCrary, a professor of religious studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The American laws took hold in the mid-19th century, an era of growing concern about fraudulent business practices, McCrary said. But the Spiritualism movement, which often involved channeling the dead, was also growing in popularity, particularly among the middle and upper classes.

“There was something about these white, Spiritualist women that I think troubled a lot of people,” McCrary said.

“Part of what made it threatening was it couldn’t be written off as something that poor people do or something for the marginal," he added. "It was very popular. And so more mainstream Christians found it especially threatening. And a lot of people were Christians who also did seances.”

Such laws faced little scrutiny from the courts at first, said David L. Hudson, a law professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a fellow with the Freedom Forum think tank in Washington.

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld a state law in 1928 that regulated fortune telling, writing that “liberty of speech is not license to speak anything that one pleases freed from all criminal or civil responsibility.” Other courts reasoned that fortune telling was commercial speech, which received no First Amendment protection until the mid-1970s.

More recently, courts have increasingly viewed bans on fortune tellers with skepticism on First Amendment grounds. Maryland’s Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that fortune telling for a fee is protected free speech.

“We’ve come a long way, both in terms of social norms and social acceptance,” Hudson told The Associated Press, likening psychic readings to tattoos. ”But also there’s been a massive development of First Amendment law ... It’s very disfavored to entirely ban a medium of expression.”

Even though Norfolk's ban was practically forgotten and no longer enforced, Carol Peterson is relieved about the repeal. She owns the Crystal Sunflower, a store in Norfolk that offers tarot card readings and vibrational sound therapy. She is also a civilian geologist for the military.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I could get a class one misdemeanor,’” Peterson said.

“People have this misconceived notion that tarot is evil or demonic,” Peterson added. “But you're helping people tap into their highest self for their journey. And if people would be more curious instead of judgmental, I think that they would be pleasantly surprised.”

Ben Finley, The Associated Press