08 May 2006

Dowsing for the dead

File this one under the "“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" category, even in Casper, Wyoming, where, according to an AP report:
some prognosticators practitioners say it's time to repeal an old law that prohibits fortune tellers, palm readers and card readers from charging for their services.... The consumer protection portion of Casper's municipal code prohibits fortune tellers, card readers, palm readers and others from gaining anything of value for their work.
The law hasn't exactly been sitting at the top of the local police force's priority list of violations to worry about. Various examples of New Age quackery-for-hire have gone unpunished at the Casper Holistic Fair for the last six years. "Nonetheless, many say it's time for repeal."

The most interesting part of the story for me is the final paragraph:
Similar laws across the country have been repealed in recent years. A demonstration in Waynesville, North Carolina, led to the state repealing its law against fortune telling in 1999.
That particular law, N.C. General Statute 14-401.5, stated that
It shall be unlawful for any person to practice the arts of phrenology, palmistry, clairvoyance, fortune-telling and other crafts of a similar kind in the counties named herein. Any person violating any provision of this section shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.
Curiously, I was treated just yesterday to a demonstration that would almost certainly be included in that list of proscribed activities -- gravesite dowsing -- as part of a story I'm working for Science & Spirit magazine. It took place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not far from Waynesville. Dowsing for the dead, it would seem, operates in a similar fashion to conventional dowsing, in which a pair of metal wands are held in the hands and "allowed" to reorient themselves in the presence of water.

The now-overturned NC law made exemptions for amateurs operating "in connection with school or church socials, provided such socials are held in school or church buildings" but I don't think non-sectarian, off-site practice at remote cemeteries would qualify for the exemption. So, not seven years ago, the dowser would have been breaking state law. How about that?

Even more surprising, a few miles to the northwest, the same activity was subject to some harsh restrictions only two years ago. But a federal judge struck down a Dickson, Tennessee, ordinance that made it illegal for "any person to conduct the business of, solicit for, or ply the trade of fortune teller, clairvoyant, hypnotist, spiritualist, palmist, phrenologist, or other mystic endowed with supernatural powers."

Like the N.C. statute, that particular law was thrown out thanks to the persuasive powers of an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
"The protections of the First Amendment ensure that our government may not decide which ideas are right or wrong," said Barbara Moss, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. "A person is free to write or sell books saying that the earth is flat or the moon is made of green cheese. Our client should be free to make predictions, for fun or profit, without government interference." (ACLU, June 7, 2004)
Of course, had I known yesterday about recently departed N.C. General Statute 14-401.5, I might have asked the National Park Service ranger in attendance about his powers to enforce state law. Just out of curiosity.


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