After a three-week trial in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, a jury today determined that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) violated New Jersey consumer fraud protections and committed unconscionable business practices by telling clients and potential clients that they were disordered and by offering “conversion therapy” services it claimed could turn their gay clients straight.
The seven-person jury deliberated for about three hours before delivering a unanimous verdict on nearly all counts in the trial overseen by Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr.
JONAH was founded by Arthur Goldberg. In 1987, Goldberg was indicted on 52 counts of bribery, conspiracy and fraud. Facing life in prison, he pleaded guilty to just a few counts and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and five years’ probation and was also fined $400,000.
The plaintiffs were three young men and two mothers. The jury ruled that the New Jersey-based JONAH violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act through its marketing and performance of conversion therapy, a practice that has been discredited by virtually every major U.S. medical and mental health association.
In a landmark pre-trial ruling on Feb. 5, Bariso excluded several leading gay conversion therapy proponents, including Joseph Nicolosi and Christopher Doyle, from testifying as defense experts. He ruled their opinions were based on the false premise that homosexuality is a disorder. In a blistering opinion, the judge wrote that “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but – like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it — instead is outdated and refuted.”
Trial testimony proved that JONAH counselors defrauded clients and used abusive and discredited techniques. According to testimony at the trial, the defendants’ counselors or their associates instructed young men to undress and stand naked in a circle with them; encouraged clients to undress in front of a mirror and touch their genitals while a counselor was present in a closed-door session, and organized group activities for clients to reenact past abuse and take part in violent role-play exercises. Male counselors also engaged and advocated “healthy touch” with young men, including cuddling sessions lasting nearly an hour.
Expert testimony showed that conversion therapy has been linked to increased anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. It also has been criticized by the American Psychological Association for promoting a climate of bigotry and discrimination toward the LGBT community.
JONAH’s techniques sometimes alienated clients from their families and caused them to blame themselves or family members for their being gay.
“I was told from the beginning, gay to straight is possible,” plaintiff Benjamin Unger testified on the opening day of the trial. “Those are the words. That is what I was promised. I felt like I was being deceived.”
JONAH counselors coaxed Unger to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket in one exercise. “I had a huge gash and my hands were actually bleeding from hitting it so much,” Unger testified. “People were standing around me and supporting me and kind of egging me on, and … that was probably the worst thing I did in the JONAH program as far as how it affected me and my family and how it affected me emotionally.”
After the verdict, 27-year-old Unger of Brooklyn, said he felt vindicated.
“I am so grateful that the jury has decided conversion therapy organizations do not have the right to lie to and deceive people,” Unger said. “It is a victory not just for me but for other victims of this harmful therapy. Thank you to all of our lawyers, friends and supporters who have been there for me throughout this difficult process.”
Plaintiff Chaim Levin, 26, whose mother, Bella, was also a plaintiff, said: “Seven years ago, I was subjected to abusive, harmful practices by JONAH that I thought would remain secret and unnoticed despite how destructive they were – in part because they thrived on this secrecy in their so-called therapy practice. Now the world knows about their destructive, refuted practices. I took part in this lawsuit to take a stand. I don’t want another person to endure the anguish and harm JONAH put my loved ones and me through.”
The jury ordered the defendants pay a total of $72,400 in damages to the plaintiffs. The damages were three times the amounts the plaintiffs paid for JONAH’s program and include the amount one plaintiff paid for subsequent therapy to repair the damage caused by JONAH’s program.
JONAH must also pay reasonable attorneys’ fees for plaintiffs. The lawsuit also seeks the cancellation of JONAH’s business license, among other remedies to be considered by the judge in coming weeks.
“This is not a freedom of religion case,” said Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney Sam Wolfe. “It is unlawful to defraud vulnerable individuals and lure them with false promises of orientation change. The lie that individuals can change their sexual orientation if only they work hard enough and pay for enough ‘therapy’ has harmed individuals, families, and religious communities for far too long.”
The case has helped spark legislation in Congress to ban conversion therapy nationwide. New Jersey, California, Oregon and the District of Columbia have already banned the practice for minors, and a number of states are considering similar laws. The SPLC lawsuit was the first in the nation against conversion therapy providers under a state consumer fraud statute.