Gay conversion therapy on trial in New Jersey

A judge has ruled that a New Jersey conversion therapy organization is potentially liable for the costs to repair the damage it inflicted on four young people by using dangerous and discredited efforts it claimed can convert people from gay to straight. That ruling is the subject of a heated trial in Hudson County.

Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. ruled that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) and its co-defendants may be liable for three times the amounts the four men paid for subsequent, legitimate therapy to repair the psychological damage caused by the organization’s conversion therapy program. JONAH’s program included nude sessions with counselors and “father-son holding.”

“These self-proclaimed experts inflicted grave damage upon our clients, who believed JONAH’s claims that it could ‘cure’ them of being gay,” said David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director. “These young men were left with guilt, shame and frustration. No amount of money can fix the damage JONAH caused, but recognizing that JONAH can be held accountable for the cost of repairing that damage is an important step.”

SPLC Plaintiffs Benjamin Unger and Chaim Levin

Plaintiffs Benjamin Unger and Chaim Levin alleged that ‘gay conversion therapist’ charged them for quackery. A New Jersey judge decided the case, which is being reviewed by an appeals panel in Hudson County. 

The court rejected JONAH’s motion seeking to limit its liability. In its ruling, the court held that costs for legitimate therapy to repair damage caused by conversion therapy constitute an “ascertainable loss,” a prerequisite to seeking damages under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act.

The court also ruled that such costs can be recovered as “damages sustained” under the CFA, potentially allowing the SPLC’s clients to recoup three times the costs they incurred.

The type of services offered by JONAH – known as conversion therapy – have been discredited or highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations.

The SPLC filed this first-of-its-kind lawsuit against JONAH in 2012 for fraudulent practices. It charges that JONAH, its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act through misrepresentations including the contention that their counseling services could cure clients of being gay. The ongoing trial has been underway in Hudson County.

JONAH’s customers typically paid $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions. Aside from being discredited and abusive, conversion therapy also promotes the idea that gay men and lesbians choose their sexual orientation or can fix it through therapy, a position that encourages a climate of anti-gay bigotry.

The law firms of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP and Lite DePalma Greenberg LLC are SPLC’s co-counsel on the case, which was filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey.

Several former clients of the Jewish ex-gay organization alleged consumer fraud for being sold the idea that they could change their sexual orientation.

The trial has not gotten much mainstream press, but some conservatives are trying to spin the proceedings to smear the young men and defend the harmful treatment they received.

One ex-gay therapist and head of the “ex-gay pride” outlet Voice of the Voiceless, Christopher Doyle, called the case the “trial of the century.”

Doyle had sought to testify as an expert in defense of controversial therapy, but the judge disallowed such testimony, claiming it would be no more scientific than expertise on why the earth is flat. The ex-gay therapist, unsurprisingly, insists otherwise — that there is “no compelling scientific evidence that suggests gay-affirmative therapy is more effective than efforts to resolve unwanted homosexual feelings.”

Doyle and others like him ignore multiple studies showing that conversion therapy is harmful or just plain ineffective, and the fact that mainstream medical organizations recommend affirming a person’s sexuality as a best practice for professional psychologists.

“One thing on trial in the gay counseling case now unfolding in a New Jersey courtroom is a form of psychotherapy called psychodrama,” wrote conservative blogger Austin Ruse, in a column that suggests science is on trial in the case. “It is an easily mockable process whereby a patient acts out painful moments in the past so as to move beyond the emotional break that happened because of it.”

New Jersey lawmakers banned gay conversion therapy and Republican Governor Chris Christie signed that statute in 2013.


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