Jersey City -- A New Jersey jury found a non-profit group that provides gay-to-straight conversion therapy guilty of consumer fraud for promising clients they could overcome their sexual urges by undressing in front of other men, pummeling an effigy of their mothers, and re-enacting traumatic childhood experiences.
In the first case in the nation to put the controversial practice on trial, the jury concluded that Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, the founders of Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing in Jersey City and life coach Alan Downing to whom JONAH referred patients, "engaged in unconscionable commercial practices" and misrepresented their services.
Chuck LiMandri, president of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and JONAH's lead counsel, said he would appeal the decision, which he called a blow to religious liberty.
The verdict requires JONAH and Downing to refund thousands of dollars paid by former clients Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck, Chaim Levin, and parents Jo Bruck and Bella Levin for the individual and group counseling sessions and the "journey into manhood" weekends in the woods. Downing charged $60 to $100 for group and individual sessions but shared 20 percent with JONAH to help defray its administrative costs.
After three hours of deliberations, the jury found Unger was entitled to $17,950; Chaim Levin was entitled to $650; his mother, Bella, $4,000; and Bruck's mother, Jo, $500.
But the victory has broader implications. The national civil rights legal advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center filed the case to take a stand against conversion therapy — a frequent target of public criticism since the passage of same-sex marriage laws and other LGBT legal protections. In 2013, New Jersey joined California by outlawing licensed therapists from providing the therapy to minors. Oregon and Washington D.C. followed. Last month, a bill was introduced in Congress would classify commercial conversion therapy and advertising that claims to change sexual orientation and gender identity as fraud.
"This is a momentous event in the history of the LGBT rights movement," said David Dinielli, deputy director for the law center and lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "The jury agreed not only is this based on lies, but it is an unconscionable business practice."
The legal battle is not over, Dinielli said they would be asking the court for an injunction to stop JONAH from operating. They will also seek the payment of their attorneys fees, which is permitted under the consumer fraud act.
"This is something brutal based on lies, and it needs to stop," he said.
LiMandri contended JONAH was founded on the belief that homosexuality is a spiritual disorder caused by childhood trauma, and could be treated with two to four years of steady counseling.
"All of us can control our sexual behavior and each of us has not only the right but the obligation to decide what is right and wrong about our behavior," LiMandri said following the verdict.
"Here's the good news though: reality cannot be controlled by judges," LiMandri said, referring to Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr.'s decision earlier this year to bar some of his expert witnesses. Bariso said because psychological experts had discredited the treatment, he would not allow them to testify to its validity.
"We will continue this fight for core American values, including the freedom of traditional believers to live as free and equal citizens in this great country. This case is not over," he said.
LiMandri argued during the trial the plaintiffs weren't entitled to call the program a failure because they had dropped out. Even then, they never requested a refund. LiMandri produced emails from Unger thanking JONAH and praised Downing, himself a man who claimed to control his gay tendencies and married a woman.
The plaintiffs only agreed to sue because they were later persuaded by a gay rights organization who was determined to make a national example of JONAH, LiMandri told jurors in closing arguments , following the three-week trial before Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. in Hudson County.
"They are flat-out liars," he said.
James Bromley, one of the plaintiff's attorneys, accused Goldberg of lying to his clients - three orthodox Jews and a Mormon- who were desperate to conform to the expectations of their religious communities to marry and have children. They were lured by Goldberg's false promise of the program's two-thirds success rate, but Bromley reminded jurors Goldberg testified that estimate was based on counselors' opinions.
The defendants claimed they never called homosexuality a mental disease but rather a spiritual disorder. Bromley read back an email Berk sent to clients that compared homosexuality to alcoholism — a disease recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.
He also reminded jurors of the tactics. Chaim Levin was made to relive the sexual abuse as a child by a relative. Downing coached Unger to blame his mother for making him gay, then gave him a tennis racket and told him to strike a pillow and imagine he was hitting her. During weekend retreats and in group sessions, clients were encouraged to undress to rid themselves of "body shame" and touch themselves to express their manhood.
He asked the jury to recall the testimony of Carol Bernstein, former president of the American Psychiatric Association, who compared conversion therapy counselors "to amateur surgeons operating on the minds of young gay men."
"You never want to go under the knife with an amateur surgeon," he said.
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