Did you ever notice that many psychics and astrologers in Pennsylvania use a “for entertainment purposes only” disclaimer, much the same way that escorts use the “money is exchanged only for time and companionship” disclaimer? Those claiming paranormal powers use disclaimers because fortunetelling is an obscure crime in Pennsylvania, but still just as illegal as prostitution.
Few people are aware that it is actually illegal in Pennsylvania to engage in things like fortune telling, palm reading, tarot card reading or astrology for monetary compensation. It is also illegal to charge someone money to caste either positive or negative spells or hexes. All of these forms of magic and superstition fall under the broad term “fortunetelling” under Pennsylvania law. The crime of fortunetelling is a third degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year incarceration and a $2,500 fine pursuant to section 7104 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code.
It is easy to see why the average citizen has no clue that charging money for things like astrology and palm reading is illegal. Astrology columns run in most newspapers, neon signs touting “psychic” are common along busy highways, and “Long Island Medium” is a hit show. And there are even reports of police departments in the United States being gullible enough to hire self-professed psychics to help them solve crimes. The ubiquity of those claiming magical powers, coupled with the fact that prosecutions under the “fortunetelling” statute are so rare, would lead one to the natural assumption that professional psychics are as legal as professional landscapers. In fact, prosecutions under the fortunetelling statute are so rare that there are no reported appellate cases in Pennsylvania.
So, why are fortune telling and related practices illegal? Banning fortune telling and psychic readings is one of those interesting areas, where both the devoutly religious and science-oriented people wholeheartedly agree, albeit it for different reasons. Fundamentalist Christians view such practices as blasphemous, if not outright Satanic. The Bible makes it very clear that witchcraft and soothsaying are forbidden, because the spirit world is real, and interacting with the spirit world could bring evil into the world of the living. Scientific-minded people decry psychics and astrologers as charlatans, who prey upon vulnerable, gullible people.
Some practitioners of new age religions incorporate beliefs in psychic powers into their religions. Thus, one could envision a psychic challenging the fortunetelling ban as violating the First Amendment, if prosecutors started enforcing the law. I do not, however, think this argument would fly, because the law has a secular purpose. The law protects gullible people from being ripped off. There are no real psychics. Anyone claiming to be a psychic is either delusional or an outright fraud. When a psychic finally collects a one million dollar prize from James Randi, by demonstrating actual psychic or paranormal powers, then I will change my position.
Matt M. McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University.