Astrologer challenges county for denying permit
Mar. 31, 1999

by Brian A. Gnatt

Staff Writer

If Gerry Stevens could foresee the future as Montgomery County alleges, he would have no problem forecasting the outcome of his battle over opening an astrology shop in Bethesda.

But Stevens, of New Jersey, said he isn't a fortune teller and is appealing the county's refusal to grant him a permit to open shop at 8002 Wisconsin Ave.

The Board of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case June 9.

Stevens was denied a permit by the county for his astrology business Jan. 13 because the Department of Permitting Services determined the operation would violate county code, according to county documents. The fortune telling law prohibits forecasting the future by cards, palmreading or any other scheme for payment.

But Rockville attorney Jody S. Kline, who is representing Stevens along with attorney Robert F. Dato of New Jersey, said Stevens Astrology Readings does not violate county code.

"Astrology is not fortune telling," said Kline, who said his client's business would not violate county code. Kline also said he plans to argue the fortune telling law is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment regarding freedom of religion.

Kline said the astrologer received an OK from the County Attorney's Office in 1996 when Dato corresponded with senior assistant county attorney Alan M. Wright. Since then, Stevens has leased space in Bethesda, but is not able to operate his business because of the permit denial.

In correspondence with the County Attorney's Office, Dato said astrology "interprets the proximity of stars, planets, the sun and moon, thereby providing clients with information that may be of value in determining anticipated courses of action."

But that constitutes fortune telling, said Clifford Royalty, the associate county attorney who is handling the case.

"When Alan wrote his letter, I think he misunderstood what they did," Royalty said. "It seems to me any astrologer is a fortune teller."

Royalty said he is not aware of any astrologers issued a permit to operate by the county and said he is not aware of any constitutional challenges to the law since it was enacted by the County Council around 1965.

He said the law was most likely passed because "fortune telling is rifled with fraud and the potential to be ripped off."

He said fortune telling is analogous to businesses like adult book and video stores and strip clubs that can have a negative impact on a neighborhood.

The Board of Appeals has the option to send the case to county hearing examiner Philip J. Tierney, who would review the case and make recommendations to the board before it makes a decision.