Nick Nefedro didn't need to have his palm read or look to Tarot cards to know that his plan to work as a fortuneteller in Bethesda would fail. His fate was already written: Montgomery County says it is illegal to make money from forecasting the future.
But Nefedro, who says he is a Gypsy, is determined to change that. He has enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union in his year-long fight to overturn the law that calls his livelihood fraudulent. He argues that fortunetelling is part of his heritage and that prohibiting him from working as a fortuneteller amounts to discrimination.
"I really want my business here, and I feel like they don't have the right to discriminate against me," Nefedro, 40, said.
He said the law is nothing more than persecution of Gypsies, who have long been stigmatized as nomadic thieves and con artists.
"Gypsies do exist, and they are not criminals," he said, adding that fortunetelling is "something we've been doing for thousands of years."
The term "Gypsy" dates to the 16th century and has been used to describe a European ethnic group, also called the Romany, thought to have originated in India. They were nomadic and often persecuted as troublemaking vagabonds. Some descendants find the term and the stereotypes associated with it offensive.
Like his father, who had been a fortuneteller in the District in the 1980s, Nefedro turned the practice into a business. With family members, he has owned and operated a half-dozen fortunetelling businesses in the Los Angeles area and in Key West, Fla.
But he wanted to move closer to home. Born in the District, he spent much of his youth with friends and family in Bethesda.
Nefedro found a location to rent about two years ago and applied for a business license. He was denied. In May 2008, he filed a lawsuit, which he lost. Now, with the ACLU on board, he wants to continue the fight.
Nefedro's lawsuit is among a spate of cases nationwide challenging laws enacted last century to keep fortunetellers out of business.
In Livingston Parish, La., a ban on soothsaying was found to be unconstitutional in 2008 after a Wiccan minister argued that his passing along messages is the same as a Christian minister purporting to proclaim God's word.
A similar ban in New Iberia, La., and one in Casper, Wyo., have also been overturned in recent years. Ajmel Quereshi, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said it is a legal trend that bodes well for Nefedro.
Laws against fraud are on the books, and if a fortuneteller breaks the law, Quereshi said, the county can prosecute under the existing guidelines. Otherwise, the ban becomes a tool to inhibit Nefedro's First Amendment rights to free expression and to practice his religion, Quereshi said.
Montgomery officials see it differently.
"I don't think it's strange for us to have laws that protect against fraud," said Clifford Royalty, zoning division chief in the Montgomery County attorney's office, adding that "religion has nothing to do with it. He's not made that allegation in the lawsuit."
"The practice is fraudulent," Royalty said, "because no one can forecast the future."
Nefedro insists that he can.
"It's not like you choose it," Nefedro said. "You're born with it."
He said he noticed at a young age that he saw things that no one else could see.
"Some people just see a palm, or see the cards," Nefedro said. "I see a sign in it."
Now that his attempt to overturn the law and start a fortunetelling business in Bethesda has started a chapter with an uncertain conclusion, knowing his own fortune would be quite valuable.
Unfortunately, he says, fortunetelling doesn't work that way: He can't read his fortune.
But his attorney said he has a pretty good idea.
"I rate it fairly well," Edward Amourgis said of his client's chance in court. "I wouldn't call that a psychic reading. I just kind of know it, and I wasn't fined for saying it."