JERSEY CITY — A Jewish nonprofit organization that claimed it could turn gay men straight violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act, a jury found Thursday in a civil trial that an attorney for the plaintiffs called “a momentous event” for LGBT rights.
The seven-member jury found that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, its co-founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing made misrepresentations and engaged in unconscionable business practices.
Three men and two parents were awarded about $72,000 in damages. The judge will rule later on their request to revoke the company’s license, plaintiffs’ attorneys said.
“This is a momentous event in the history of LGBT rights,” attorney David Dinielli said. “The same lies that motivate gay conversion therapy motivate homophobia — that gay people are broken and need to be fixed. The strength of our plaintiffs brought that to light.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued during the trial that the group, known by the acronym JONAH, claimed a success rate that wasn’t backed up by actual statistics and used therapy methods that had no scientific basis, including having one client beat a pillow, meant to represent his mother, with a tennis racket.
Defense attorney Charles LiMandri couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
LiMandri argued during the trial that JONAH didn’t make guarantees and should be allowed to offer help to people struggling with their sexuality. He also said none of the plaintiffs complained about the therapy during or immediately after participating in it and sued only after connecting with activists who wanted to shut JONAH down.
“Sometimes you need distance to survey the wreckage,” plaintiff Michael Ferguson, who was raised as a Mormon and sought out JONAH in 2008, said after Thursday’s verdict.
The trial began this month and featured testimony from the men about the group’s methods, which they said included engaging in role play that involved a locker room scene where gay slurs were used. JONAH presented witnesses who said the therapy helped them overcome their same-sex attractions.
But Goldberg acknowledged during cross-examination that the group claimed a “success” rate of 65 to 75 percent to turn gay men to straight even though it didn’t keep its own statistics and relied on anecdotal evidence from counselors.
The original four plaintiffs, Ferguson and three from Orthodox Jewish families, alleged the nonprofit exploited them with false promises as they struggled with their same-sex attractions in strict religious environments where they were expected to marry women and have children.
One man dropped out of the suit, but his mother remained.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a law in 2013 banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy in New Jersey. Two court challenges to the ban, one by a couple and their son and one by a group that included two licensed therapists, were dismissed by a federal judge. Those decisions were later affirmed by a federal appeals court.
New Jersey’s ban wasn’t an issue during the trial because Goldberg and Downing aren’t licensed therapists, Dinielli said.
A JONAH co-founder testified he believes homosexuality is a disorder caused by emotional wounds and can be cured through his organization’s methods.
The four men sued under New Jersey’s consumer fraud laws, claiming JONAH violated those laws by characterizing homosexuality as a mental disorder and claiming it could successfully change patients’ sexual orientation.
Three of the four plaintiffs were young men from Orthodox Jewish families, plaintiffs’ attorney Dinielli said, who were grappling with their sexuality in a culture in which “there were no gay people.”
“My clients needed help but JONAH lied and JONAH made it worse,” Dinielli told jurors. “All they got was junk science and so-called cures.”
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