Decided: February 26, 2013
In this case, a psychic and spiritual counselor in Chesterfield County, Virginia, brought an action in federal court challenging the county’s ordinance regulating the activities of “fortune tellers”—a statutorily defined term that encompassed the plaintiff’s profession. The plaintiff alleged that the county’s regulatory scheme violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, her rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., and her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant on each claim.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit stated that fortune telling activity was an exercise of speech entitled to some degree of First Amendment protection; however, the court, applying the “professional speech doctrine” derived from the Supreme Court, concluded that the county’s regulation of the fortunate telling occupation did not violate the plaintiff’s constitutional right to free speech. The Fourth Circuit also concluded that the plaintiff’s set of beliefs more closely resembled a philosophical “way of life” as opposed to a religious faith. Thus, the court affirmed the district court’s determination that the county had not violated the plaintiff’s right to freely exercise her religion under the First Amendment or the RLUIPA. And finally, the court ruled that the county had not abridged the plaintiff’s right to equal protection under the law. Under a rational basis analysis, the court held that the plaintiff failed to overcome the presumption that the licensing and zoning ordinances applicable to fortune tellers were reasonably related to the county’s interest in regulating that particular profession.
-John C. Bruton, III