Fraudulent: JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg
In a landmark victory, a jury in a New Jersey Superior Court case has found that a religious group offering gay “cure” therapy is guilty of fraud.
On Thursday, the jury ordered JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) to pay $72,400 to compensate five plaintiffs for fees they paid to the group and for mental health counselling one of the victims needed afterwards.
The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act in 2012 and was the first case of its kind in the US.
“This verdict is a monumental moment in the movement to ensure the rights and acceptance of LGBT people in America,” said David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director.
“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 but can seriously harm the unsuspecting people who fall into this trap,” he said.
The plaintiffs are three young men who were harmed by the practice and two parents who paid fees to JONAH for their sons’ therapy, which cost $100 for weekly, individual sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions.
The jury ruled that JONAH, its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counsellor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud law by claiming their counselling services could cure clients of being gay.
“We’re proud of our clients, who survived these so-called treatments and had the courage to call to account the people who defrauded them with their false promises,” said Dinielli.
During the trial, men who had participated in the program testified to the same pattern of feeling joy at discovering a program that would purportedly turn them straight only to endure disappointment, frustration and depression as it failed.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my enemy,” one of the men, Benjamin Unger, testified. “It was very harmful. It made me very depressed, and people have a right to know about it.”
Unger was told that one of the reasons he was gay was because he was too close to his mother. In one exercise, he was encouraged to beat a pillow – representing his mother – with a tennis racket.
“I had a huge gash and my hands were actually bleeding from hitting it so much,” said Unger, now 27. “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.”
Unger described how he grew to resent his mother as a result of the treatment, stopped speaking to her for three months and even moved out of the house they shared.
He eventually quit the program, but depression and anxiety left him virtually bedridden for three months. Unger later received treatment for the trauma from a clinical psychologist
Throughout the trial, SPLC attorneys demonstrated how JONAH clients and their family members were led to believe the program was based on science when it was not.
In addition to paying damages, the defendants were ordered to pay attorneys’ fees. The judge in the trial will also consider whether to cancel JONAH’s business license, among other remedies, in the coming weeks.
The judge previously ruled that misrepresenting homosexuality as an illness or disorder when marketing conversion therapy violates the state’s consumer protection laws.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), America’s largest LGBT rights group, praised the decision as an important legal victory.
“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 HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow. “Today’s decision is an extremely important legal victory in our march towards fairness, equality, and justice for LGBT people.”
In May, Oregon became the third American state to ban efforts to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBT youth under the age of 18.
Conversion therapy has been widely discredited as ineffectual and potentially harmful by major medical and psychological groups.
While the South African Society of Psychiatrists has rejected the practice, it remains legal and has been offered in South Africa, primarily by some religious groups.