The Law and Astrology
The Law and Astrology(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
Laws from the near and distant past still restrict professionals who forecast the future, but astrologers are successfully challenging the laws across America, in Europe, and in South America that inhibit their profession. Major court cases have been won in the United States, and dozens of cities have changed their laws on “fortune-telling” or the “occult arts.” The Association for Astrological Networking (AFAN) is committed to overturning every law that overly restricts the practice of astrology.
Labeled “fortune-telling,” and lumped in with all manner of unrelated and archaic “occult arts” and metaphysical practices—as well as the complete pantheon of New Age philosophies and disciplines—astrological practice is still restricted, or banned, by numerous cities in many states of the union.
AFAN has legal briefs prepared that with little modification can be filed to challenge antiastrology laws in all their various forms. Many cities are unaware of court rulings and legal victories in other jurisdictions, or they ignore them in the face of local civic or religious pressure, or until they get some pressure from AFAN.
The laws astrologers object to include: bonding requirements of up to $10,000 in areas where cities know bonding companies do not issue bonds for astrologers; business license fees that range to $300 per year, when other consulting businesses pay $30; and permits that go for as much as $100 per day, which is not terrible for a one-day event, but is $36,500 for a year in business. Some cities require fingerprints and mug-shot photos, and a license fee in the range of fines, effectively arresting the astrologer before she or he goes into business. All these fees and license requirements are in excess of what other businesses or consultants are charged. Total prohibitions on the practice of astrology for a fee also exist.
The most celebrated case defending an astrologer against charges of fortunetelling is the trial of Evangeline Adams in New York City in 1914. Adams was the best known and most respected astrologer of her era, renowned for her insight and accuracy in forecasting. She was a prolific author and a media celebrity. She was a member of the Boston Adams family, a direct descendant of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Her offices were in Carnegie Hall, and her client list included actors, opera stars, politicians, statesmen, kings, tycoons, and high-class brothel madams. Readings were $5.
She was arrested under New York’s anti-fortune-telling statute, which made it a crime “to pretend to tell fortunes.” Those found to be in violation of the ordinance “shall be adjudged disorderly persons and punished as prescribed therein.” Adams, with the support of her clients, specifically J. P. Morgan, decided to defend astrology, rather than pay a minor fine.
Adams contended that she used scientific methods, the measurements of astronomy, logarithms, the rigors of mathematics, and the empirical findings of centuries of astrologers in her practice. She never predicted specific future events, nor did she forecast with certainty, or promote undue reliance on her predictions. Rather, she spoke of planets in particular positions or alignments, indicating a likelihood of a happening or of an opportunity. She did not claim for herself special gifts or mysterious powers, but stated that any knowledgeable astrologer could find the same positions and indications from the proper astrological reference books. Scant mention is found in the transcript that Adams used real planet positions, called transits, which she learned from Dr. Heber Smith, while her contemporaries used the older symbolic system of progressions, or projected positions of the birth planets.
Importantly, this case actually examines the means and methods of astrology. Walter Coleman asserts that it is the only case “where the substantive merits of astrology were completely analyzed by a duly constituted judicial authority.” Text from The Encyclopedia Britannica referred to as “this leading authority of the world,” was entered into the court record: “The belief in a connection between the heavenly bodies and the life of man has played an important part in human history …. Men of intellectual eminence … have convinced themselves that … astrology has a foundation in truth. [One scientist] insisted indeed that it was a mistake to confuse astrology with fortunetelling, and maintained that it was a physical science just as much as geology depending on ascertained facts, and grossly misrepresented by being connected with magic.”
The telling component of the trial came when the judge asked Evangeline Adams to demonstrate her art by interpreting a mystery chart from birth data he supplied. Adams is said to have done a remarkable job on the interpretation. Coleman calls it “perfect” and the judge later said the accurate reading gave him valuable and useful insight into his son’s character and behavior. Judge John H. Freschi said, in ruling from the bench, “The defendant raises astrology to the dignity of an exact science.” Astrologers have taken great pride in that statement. Adams was found not guilty.
The New York ordinance, and its many similar “siblings” in other jurisdictions, is designed to prevent fraud. Antiastrology laws are also predicated on the false assumption that, without exception, “the business of fortune telling is inherently fraudulent” so that “its regulation or prohibition is required in order to protect the gullible, superstitious and unwary” (from In re Bartha ).
These laws may prevent or punish fraud, but they have the unacceptable and unconstitutional result of restricting the honest and helpful speech of astrologers. This is akin to prohibiting drinking to forestall drunkenness and spousal abuse; to banning driving to prevent speeding; or raising a sales or use tax to the level of a fine in an attempt to prevent consumption. The rights of the many cannot be sacrificed to protect or punish the few. Although it is seldom argued, antiastrology ordinances also restrict the public’s right to access astrological information and counsel. The public (except for fundamentalists in religion and their counterparts, the skeptics in science) is not clamoring for less astrology, but more.
The most important recent legal victory is known as the Azusa Decision. The California Supreme Court overturned, as an unconstitutional infringement of free speech, an Azusa, California, ordinance that completely banned fortune-telling. The court held that astrologers and fortune-tellers or palmists, have the same constitutionally protected right to express and charge for their opinions as other mainstream forecasters. That the speech may be false is irrelevant, the court held. Banning, or unduly restricting, astrologers’ speech is a “content-based” restriction, one of the most egregious violations of the First Amendment.
Astrology’s acceptance and popularity actually rose from 22 percent in the early 1970s to 47 percent in the mid-1990s, according to Gallup and Life magazine surveys. However, many of the laws on the books in their latest revisions date from the 1950s, an era of fear of the different or unknown. Before that, many laws were revised in the 1920s and 1930s, or in the 1900s, times of economic and social uncertainty. At various points, magnetism, hypnotism, and psychology, which are not noted as predictive sciences, were added to the lists of many practices prohibited in the laws covering occult arts or fortune-telling. They are never called “astrology” ordinances. That is, except for the few that reasonably license astrologers by the same standards applied to “mundane” businesses.
Anti-fortune-telling laws originated in the 1600s with the British Vagrancy Act, designed to curtail “gypsies” and other wandering, poor, vagrants. Colonial America was governed by British law and the new states continued and adopted most city ordinances. While these laws were partly ethnist or racist and partly medical belief (about diseased travelers, going back to the plagues of the 1400s), they were also definitely antifraud, anti-pickpocket, etc., in intent. There may be some historical, and even contemporary, substance to the gypsy stereotype, but it is nonetheless a stereotype—and guilt by association—and a violation of the due process and equal justice guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
The Azusa decision was won by a family group of “gypsies,” members of the “Rom” or Romany community, who founded a Spiritual Church, and who were doing palm readings, for donations, as a part of their religious practice. The city’s ordinance, a total ban on all metaphysical practices, was challenged by one of the ministers when they were ordered to shut down.
The city won in Superior Court, based on the Bartha precedent, but lost at the next two levels, where the justices could overturn incorrectly established precedent and rule anew, strictly on constitutional issues. The Appellate Court overturned the Azusa City ordinance and discredited the Bartha assumptions based on Article I, section 2 of the California Constitution, which states: “Every person may freely speak, write or publish his or her sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of this right. A law may not restrain or abridge liberty of speech or press.”
The appellate judges added, consequently, “One need not have a scientific basis for a belief in order to have a constitutional right to utter speech based on that belief.” Not only does the broader California Constitution protect astrology but, in addition, the judges found, “the telling of fortunes and prophesying about the future to be a category of speech protected by the United States Constitution.”
The City of Azusa then appealed the case to the California Supreme Court, asking for either a review (hoping to overturn the appellate ruling), or a retrial on the facts (including the merits of fortune-telling), and lost again. The California Supreme Court ruled that astrology is not “inherently fraudulent” nor “mere commercial speech” but rather, “protected speech,” as fully protected by the Constitution as any other idea. Interestingly, the appellate case was argued primarily on grounds of the Rom’s freedom of religion. The Supreme Court asked for a freedom of speech argument.
The Supreme Court majority held that “some persons believe they possess the power to predict what has not yet come to pass. When such persons impart their belief to others, they are not acting fraudulently; they are expressing opinions which, however dubious, are unquestionably protected by the Constitution …. It must also be noted that there are many persons other than professional fortunetellers who purport to predict the future; e.g., astrology columnists in daily newspapers, economists who prognosticate interest rates and other business conditions, investment counselors who forecast stock market trends, sportswriters and odds makers who predict winners of athletic contests, horse race handicappers, pollsters who forecast election returns, and clergymen who describe the concept of a hereafter.”
“Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea,” the California Supreme Court said. “However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.” The court did not rule on the validity or the value of astrology, nor separate it from other metaphysical philosophies or occult arts. It leaves those tasks to the marketplace of ideas, and the test of time and events.
In so ruling, the court, throughout its decision, cited federal precedent: cases which were decided based on the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, they added a footnote at the beginning of their decision stating that their frequent use of the term First Amendment was “merely illustrative” and that the ruling was based on the California Constitution.
This strategic move prevented an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, making the California court’s opinion the final one. Since the cites in the decision are from federal cases, they, and the ruling, would be very “persuasive” in courts in other states. Their arguments would be influential, but the ruling is not “enforceable” outside California. By law, the Azusa decision is “controlling” in California, which means cities and counties must abide by its ruling. However, many cities in this state have ignored the decision until AFAN has reminded them of it and its force of law.
AFAN even had to sue the City of Albany (in the San Francisco Bay Area) to overturn and invalidate that city’s ordinance. It was the “arrest first” variety, demanding fingerprints, mug shots, a bond, and high fees. Most cities, in and out of California, are more responsive to AFAN’s presentations. City attorneys, council members, and even district attorneys—but seldom police chiefs—recognize the unconstitutionality of prior restraint on the content of a common and popular subject of speech. Quotes and citations from, and commentary on, the Azusa decision, combined with a history of astrology’s role and influence in western civilization, taken from trial preparation in the Sundebruch case, and AFAN’s amicus curiae in the Azusa case, have been collected in a pamphlet titled The Law & Astrology, which is AFAN’s major tool and reference for overturning laws from the past that restrict those professional astrologers who forecast the future.
Brau, Jean-Louis, Helen Weaver, and Allan Edmands. Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology. New York: New American Library, 1980.