Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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When Nick Nefedro was a child, growing up in the District and Northern Virginia, his family tried to avoid crossing the border into Montgomery County. Police there tended to stop people of his persuasion, he says, make them turn around and escort them back to D.C.

“I wouldn’t be allowed in a store like this one,” says Nefedro, sitting down one afternoon at a Starbucks in Bethesda. “I wouldn’t be allowed here. It was a known thing through the Romani culture not to go through Montgomery County.”

By Romani, he means gypsy. To some anthropologists, both are proper and interchangeable terms to describe the nomadic tribe of people long thought to have originated in Egypt; others argue against saying “gypsy” because it carries too much cultural baggage and negative connotations. Nefedro uses both.

Like his father before him, Nefedro, now 40, makes his living as a fortuneteller, which is sort of unusual for a gypsy male. “Women do it more because they’re better at it, they’re more accurate at it,” he says. “But I’m into it more in a business sense…I run it.” Over the years, Nefedro has owned psychic shops in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Key West, where he lived until his mother passed away and he felt he had to leave. He decided to move to Bethesda because he liked the area and liked the way it had changed since he was a kid, he says. But not everything has changed.In 2008, he subleased a space at 8118 Woodmont Avenue. He wanted his new shop to be like the Psychic Eye in Los Angeles—a big store that does psychic readings and also sells New Age books and metaphysical gifts and teaches classes on how to do readings. He even got a sign. Then he went to apply for a business license. A clerk at the counter flatly turned him down, he says, citing a long-standing passage of Montgomery County Code, specifically section 32-7: “Every person who shall demand or accept any remuneration or gratuity for forecasting or foretelling or for pretending to forecast or foretell the future by cards, palm reading or any other scheme, practice or device shall be subject to punishment.”

County officials have long justified the rule as a simple matter of preventing fraud.

Nefedro suspects there’s an ulterior motive. “They won’t let me operate just for the fact that I’m a gypsy,” he says. “I know this, ’cause I know Montgomery County. I know from my family’s experience. My grandfather used to tell me, when I was growing up, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do nothing in Montgomery County.’”

For nearly two years now, Nefedro has been wrangling with the county in court. His lawyers have argued the fortune-telling law is “unconstitutional as infringing on [Nefedro’s] First Amendment Rights.”

The county insists the law doesn’t prohibit his freedom to make predictions, just his ability to charge money for it—a practice the county considers “inherently deceptive.” In court filings, county attorney Clifford L. Royalty writes, “A business enterprise predicated upon the acceptance of money in consideration for a promise to perform the impossible is not an activity that enjoys constitutional protection.”

Ajmel Quereshi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is backing Nefedro in his lawsuit, disagrees. “It’s understandable that some people may not believe in fortunetelling, might not agree with fortunetelling, from a policy perspective,” Quereshi says. “But there’s lots of types of speech that I might not like or you may not like, but the First Amendment protects. The county can’t ban an entire category of speech.”

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In supporting their argument, Nefedro’s lawyers have relied heavily on a fantastically titled California court ruling from 1985—Spiritual Psychic Science Church of Truth, Inc. v. City of Azuza—which found that “a regulation is suspect…if it prohibits protected expression, even though it also guards the public from fraud.”

County lawyer Royalty dismisses the Azusa ruling as “unpersuasive authority,” considering that the decision was “overruled, in part” as recently as 2002. He points to other court decisions in Ohio and Missouri upholding similar fortunetelling ordinances as valid consumer protections against deception and fraud.

Throughout the process, the man at the center of the dispute has bristled at the notion that, as a fortuneteller, he must be up to no good. During interrogatories, court records show, Nefedro objected to questions about possible past aliases and arrests, dismissing them as “irrelevant” to the case. Yet he stated for the record that he has “never been convicted of any felonies.” (An online search of court records and other public record databases by City Paper turned up nothing contrary to Nefedro’s account.)

“My whole entire life, this is what I go through,” he says. “I’m fed up with it. I’m aggravated. I’m not suing for money, I’m suing for my right. You can’t be stamped a criminal because of your race, because of what you believe in. There’s a lot of people giving psychic readings who aren’t gypsies. Jean Dixon is one. She used to give psychic readings for the Reagans. Is she stamped a criminal, or is it just gypsies stamped criminals automatically? That’s my question. Automatically, I’m a thief. Because I’m a gypsy.”

This past December, the Montgomery County Circuit Court dismissed Nefedro’s original complaint, ruling that “insofar as the County law does regulate speech, it is narrowly drawn to serve the County’s compelling interest in protecting its citizenry from fraud.”

On March 8, the case came before the Maryland Court of Appeals, where a judge wondered aloud whether the county could instead set up some licensing system for fortunetellers, whereby a psychic would have to accurately predict, say, six out of 10 events in order to obtain a proper permit.

One of Nefedro’s lawyers, Edward Amourgis, argued this solution would unreasonably burden free speech and might also set an unreasonable precedent for other professionals who are allowed to make imprecise predictions about the future. The judge seemed to agree, even opining that many meteorologists might quickly find themselves out of a job should they be required to meet the same standard.

A decision in the case could come at any time. In an interview with City Paper, Nefedro declined to predict the outcome—or do much of anything psychic-ish beyond noting this reporter’s “gray aura.” His attorney Quereshi says, “We have not made any decision as to what to do if the Court of Appeals disagrees with us.”

Passed in 1951, the prohibition on fortunetelling was one of the first laws enacted by the newly created Montgomery County council. The local papers of the time were full of stories about B’nai Brith luncheons, the opening of Negro schools, and whether local loyalty laws did enough to protect the community from the Red Scare. The county was experiencing a tremendous population boom, with hundreds of new apartments under construction in Bethesda alone. How the influx of transient non-property-owners would impact the community was a big issue.

The county is certainly not alone in regulating predictions. There are jurisdictions in Massachusetts, Tennessee, Louisiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Florida, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California, just to name a few, that have similar ordinances. Maryland has a whole host of fortunetelling bans and regulations. Don’t even try consulting your crystal ball or tarot deck in Carroll, Harford, Caroline, and Talbot counties, or in the city of Gaithersburg. At least not for money.

But if, as Nefedro alleges, the aim of Montgomery County’s law is to specifically regulate gypsies, then it does so far less explicitly than other places. Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas, points to a New Jersey law making it unlawful for any gypsies to settle without first obtaining a license to do so; a Pennsylvania statute allowing the department of health to kick gypsies out of the state; a Georgia statute imposing a $250 fee on gypsies who are engaged in trading or selling merchandise or livestock or the practice of fortune-telling, phrenology, or palmistry; and a Texas law charging gypsies $500 to live in the state.

Still, the law may have had the same effect. Montgomery County’s gypsy population was reported by police to be “about zero” when the psychic Sister Kay was ordered out of town in September 1967, according to newspaper accounts. Sister Kay—who was either 22, 23, or 30 years old, depending on who was telling the story—was arrested and tried for fortunetelling in Silver Spring. A judge who heard the case was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying he “didn’t know it was against the law” to tell fortunes until Sister Kay was brought before him.

The judge reportedly gave the busted fortuneteller two options: she could go to jail or leave town. Sister Kay chose option two and left Montgomery County for New York with her family—two daughters, a brother-in-law, and a husband who, it was also reported in the Sun, had “purchased” Sister Kay “for $3,000 from her father when she was 17.”

However, to suggest that the statute has eliminated fortunetelling in Montgomery County, altogether, would be misleading.

A D.C.-based psychic named Jane Doe tells City Paper that she regularly conducts readings in Montgomery County, but only in people’s homes, and that she doesn’t go leaving her card in cafés around the county because she doesn’t want to call attention to herself there.

Doe suggests that there are other psychics who practice in Montgomery County, too. What you don’t find there is the gypsy fortunetellers—the ones with the sandwich boards that say psychic and readings for $5. And that’s a good thing, she says.

Doe contends that gypsy fortunetellers are scammers and the ban keeps the gypsy psychics out of town. The $5 readings are not actually five dollars, according to Doe. The $5 readings are a lure—once you’re in for your reading, the gypsy fortuneteller will start saying things like “your aura is dirty” and “you have a curse on you” and then next thing you know you’re forking over thousands of dollars to have your aura cleansed and curses lifted.

“If you do a Google search for ‘gypsy psychic scam’ you’ll get thousands of results,” says Doe.

One common hit is the Web site of the National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI), described as a group of “over 800 members in law enforcement and related fields devoted exclusively to assist in the identification, apprehension, and prosecution of Confidence Crime and certain other Non-Traditional Organized Crime group suspects.”

The organization is led by a retired Baltimore cop named Jon Grow, who spends his time helping rid the world of con schemes. Grow says he thinks that the fortunetelling bans don’t stop fortunetelling scams, but they do slow down the perpetrators.

NABI’s Web site has a whole section devoted specifically to gypsy fortunetelling scams, including the misadventures of a notorious Romani clan named Uwanawich. Over the years, Uwanawiches have been brought up on various criminal charges in Pennsylvania, Florida, California, and, yes, Montgomery County, where just two-and-a-half years ago, Grace Uwanawich (aka Mrs. Grace) was sentenced to 18 months in jail for defrauding “vulnerable middle-aged women by persuading them to hand over tens of thousands of dollars to crush devastating curses,” according to the Washington Post.

“Every state had laws to try to control gypsies,” says Grow. “You’ve got to ask yourself: Why were the laws put in place in the first place?”

Mz. imani, a self-described shaman who works in Montgomery County and uses readings, cards and other devices, as part of her repertoire, thinks it is beyond Montgomery County’s jurisdiction to decide that just because there are some scams, that fortunetelling should be banned wholesale.

It’s “another form of prejudice that is cloaked in protecting the people,” says Mz. imani. “I just really think it’s coming into church and state stuff, and I don’t like that.”

She says that there are ways to police fortunetellers that wouldn’t require all fortunetelling to be banned. There could be a fortunetelling guild—like a bar association for psychics—that keeps track of its own. She adds that clients should also take more care when choosing their fortunetellers, which would also go a long way toward protecting against scam artists, and that would not violate the First Amendment.

“If you’re going to a doctor of spirit for a reading, you should have the same levels of checking up on as if you were going to a doctor of medicine,” says Mz. imani. “One’s physical, one’s metaphysical. I think there’s fraud within any community. It’s not unique to the fortunetelling community. You have to keep your eyes open.”

Nefedro, too, acknowledges that a number of bad actors have sullied the reputations of gypsy fortunetellers everywhere. But he argues that the appropriate punishment should be levied against the individual perpetrators—not the prediction business as a whole.

“Every culture has people who rob, kill,” says Nefedro. “There’s people that sell stock and they go around stealing people out of house and home, out of billions. Are they gonna stop and say that all people who sell stock in Montgomery County shouldn’t sell it anymore? Are you gonna stop all the stockbrokers in Montgomery County like you’re gonna stop me? You catch the person that’s doing the crime, that’s doing the evil. Catch him and arrest him. Catch me and arrest me for something I did. Don’t discriminate against me just for something I am.”