After just three hours of deliberation, a New Jersey jury has delivered a unanimous verdict that a Jewish group peddling so-called conversion therapy violated the state's consumer fraud protection laws in claiming it could "cure" clients of being LGBT.
The verdict concludes that New Jersey–based nonprofit Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, violated the state's Consumer Fraud Protection Act by marketing "conversion therapy" that has been denounced by every major medical and mental health organization in the country, notes the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Jewish group has been ordered to pay $72,400 to the plaintiffs, which represents three times the cost of JONAH's "therapy," in addition to the cost of subsequent legitimate therapy one plaintiff sought to overcome the damage done by JONAH's efforts.
The lawsuit was filed by the SPLC on behalf of three young men and two mothers subjected to the discredited therapy that tries to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. It was filed in 2012, before New Jersey became the second U.S. state to ban the unscientific practice when used by licensed therapists on minors. Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed the ban on ex-gay therapy into law in August 2013.
"This verdict is a monumental moment in the movement to ensure the rights and acceptance of LGBT people in America," said a statement from David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the SPLC and lead attorney in the case. "Conversion therapy and homophobia are based on the same central lie — that gay people are broken and need to be fixed. Conversion therapists, including the defendants in this case, sell fake cures that don’t work and can seriously harm the unsuspecting people who fall into this trap."
Testimony in the trial, which was presided over by Hudson Superior Court Judge Peter D. Barsio, Jr., demonstrated that JONAH counselors used abusive, discredited tactics to shame and defraud their clients, according to SPLC:
"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."
In addition to the $72,400 in damages paid to the plaintiffs, JONAH has been ordered to pay "reasonable attorney's fees" incurred by the plaintiffs, SPLC reports. The judge has yet to rule on SPLC's additional requests that JONAH's business license be cancelled, or that the group pay additional financial penalties.
Plaintiff Chaim Levin, 26, whose mother, Bella, was also a plaintiff, said he was relieved by today's verdict in a statement from SPLC:
"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."
Benjamin Unger, a 27-year-old plaintiff who now lives in Brooklyn, added:
"I am so grateful that the jury has decided conversion therapy organizations do not have the right to lie to and deceive people. It is a victory not just for me but for other victims of this harmful therapy."
The first-of-its-kind case has been closely watched by advocates hoping to end the practice of conversion therapy in the U.S. In February, Hudson Superior Court Judge Peter D. Barsio Jr., ruled that JONAH could not legally present homosexuality as a "disorder" but did not determine whether JONAH had actually made that claim to its clients.
That February ruling from Barsio determined that JONAH would be in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act if it offered specific success statistics for its services when "client outcomes are not tracked and no records of client outcomes are maintained" because "there is no factual basis for calculating such statistics." SPLC lawyers said they are confident that evidence at the trial, set for June 1, will show that JONAH has indeed engaged in such misrepresentation.
Barsio had previously ruled that several proponents of "ex-gay" therapy will not be allowed to testify as expert witnesses at the trial. They included Joseph Nicolosi, a psychologist who founded the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, as well as other prominent voices in the movement, such as Christopher Doyle, James Phelan, and John Diggs. The judge held that their opinions are based on the false premise that homosexuality is a disorder, writing 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.”
Today's ruling affirms that JONAH did defraud its clients by telling them not only that homosexuality was wrong, but that it could be cured, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that shows such attempts at "reparative therapy" are ineffective and harmful to those subjected to it. The practice has already been condemned by the White House and top Obama administration officials, and is currently illegal to employ on minors in California, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Oregon.
"This jury has affirmed what victims of conversion therapy heartbreakingly already know — charlatans’ attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity amount to nothing more than fraud," said Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow in a statement. "Today’s decision is an extremely important legal victory in our march towards fairness, equality, and justice for LGBT people."