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Lawyers for a group of Florida psychics accused of fraud have enlisted the First Amendment's free exercise clause in their defense. The group is a family of gypsies headed by Rose Marks. They've been telling fortunes in the Ft. Lauderdale area for nearly 20 years.
In August, federal prosecutors filed charges against the Marks family, accusing its members of preying on vulnerable individuals. They reportedly earned $40 million in exchange for telling fortunes, curing people of diseases, cleansing souls and chasing away evil spirits.
Rose Marks and her family are correct -- they do have a constitutional right to tell fortunes and practice their specific form of spirituality. They can't be singled out and punished for practicing their religion. However, they can be punished for breaking the law -- even if the law prohibits a religious practice.
These two situations may sound the same, but they're not. The first occurs when the government passes an intentionally discriminatory law. This is unconstitutional. The second involves generally applicable laws. These laws are neutral and apply to everyone, regardless of religion. States can, but don't have to, provide a religious exemption from these prohibitions.
Federal prosecutors claim the Marks' actions, and their response, fall into this second category. They allegedly told clients that they would return money and any other form of payment once they had been cleansed of evil, reports the Sun Sentinel. On multiple occasions, they refused to do so.
This is where, under Florida law, prosecutors say Rose Marks and her family stopped telling fortunes and instead turned to theft and fraud. Telling people you can cure disease and see the future may be religious in nature. But telling people you'll return their valuables and not doing so is just illegal.