Fraud in the Name of Religion

A while ago I wrote about a Florida family that was defrauding people by claiming to be psychics. Their case has now come to trial. We aren’t talking about the local tea leaf reader who charges $25 per reading.

When federal agents arrested the family, they seized hundreds of items of jewelry, more than $1.8 million worth of gold coins, luxury cars and a fancy home overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale, all paid for with the proceeds of the fraud, according to prosecutors.

The Marks family is not denying that they were paid for their services. Their defence? Their religion makes everything OK.

Attorney Michael Gottlieb, who wrote the 24-page legal

Nancy Marks

document about religious rights, argued that his client, Nancy Marks, 42, of Fort Lauderdale and New York City, did nothing but try to help people, in line with her personal spiritual beliefs. While Nancy Marks’ name is used in the document, other attorneys, including the one representing Rose Marks, have joined in the request.

“Nancy Marks’ conduct is rooted in her religion and spirituality,” Gottlieb wrote. “Based upon this prosecution, the defendant has lost her livelihood and has been unable to make a living using her historical religious and spiritual gifts.”…

The legal argument spells out some widely-held Romani beliefs but also draws comparisons with legal rulings about the rights of people who are Amish, Wiccans, Krishnas, Mormons, Catholics and Jews.

During conversations recorded by or at the direction of federal investigators, Nancy Marks frequently spoke about religion, God, “guides,” the reading of numbers, “the Trinity” and spirits, Gottlieb wrote. Nancy Marks is a kind of “shaman,” he wrote, who believes she can communicate with good and evil spirits.

In the Romani language, a fortuneteller is called a “drabarni,” which several experts have said translates as a “healer” and only women are believed to have the power to combat negative energy.

Members of the sect, including Nancy Marks, “believe in good and bad energy, which originates from God (Del), the Devil (Beng), curses (amria), bad omens (prikaza), and the spirits of the dead (mule). According to the Gypsy belief, if a person dies with feelings of resentment or hostility toward the living, then he or she will return from the ‘other side’ to haunt them with bad energy,” Gottlieb wrote.

The prosecutors are claiming that the beliefs are fine, and communicating with spirits and driving out demons are within their religious rights, but taking the money is what makes it illegal.

That would not be illegal, prosecutors said, but the family took it farther by taking money, jewelry and other items of value and promising that they would “cleanse” them of evil spirits and curses and then return the items. The behavior became criminal, prosecutors said, when the family refused to or failed to return the cash and valuables.

The defence team compared the Marks’ beliefs and practices with other, more mainstream, religious beliefs.

Nancy Marks’ behavior was no different from that of “religious teachers, preachers, and healers and demon chasers,” evangelists and the Psychic Friends Network, whose shows are often televised on cable where donations are sought, the lawyers argued.

“Yet none of these individuals … endure the constant derogatory label of being called a Gypsy for simply exercising their faith or practicing their chosen profession. Nor are they vilified and persecuted and prosecuted for espousing their beliefs and profiting … even when their predictions fall short, miss the mark or are at odds with other genuinely accepted beliefs,” Gottlieb wrote.

A conviction here may allow a precedent for other religious practices to be challenged. A straight up donation is one thing, but providing spiritual services for money is undoubtedly fraudulent behaviour and should not be allowed.  With luck, this would open  faith healers and exorcists who charge for their services to prosecution. These people prey on those who are searching at straws for physical or psychological comfort, then hide behind freedom of religion when they are called on their actions.

How much longer will our society permit this type of fraud to continue?

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