Gay ‘conversion’ treatment faces novel court challenge

Gay clients sue in N.J. citing ‘consumer fraud’

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UPDATE: After hearing arguments Friday, Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso, Jr., in Hudson County, ruled that the case against JONAH and its two associates can proceed.

A New Jersey consumer fraud case has opened a new front in the battle over “conversion” therapies that offer counseling to gay patients looking to become straight.

The fraud case involving services offered to four young men who once struggled with their same-sex attractions will be heard Friday. Four gay men and two of the men’s mothers are suing a Jewish nonprofit corporation, saying the gay-to-straight “conversion” sessions were fraudulent and harmful.

Conversion counselors and their supporters say they are offering a legitimate service to willing customers, but the practice has come under sustained attack from gay-rights groups and others who question the scientific rigor and the results of the therapy methods.

The fraud plaintiffs want a jury to revoke the business license of Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), declare its services deceptive and false, and order it to repay all the money the plaintiffs spent on therapy sessions, plus other costs.

In the hearing before Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr., in Hudson County, the plaintiffs are offering a novel legal argument that cites New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, and say the case should be allowed to go before a jury, said Sam Wolfe, senior attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who called the conversion therapy program “bogus.”

Counsel for the defendants said the consumer fraud law is being misused to advance a political agenda to outlaw change therapies, and promises to show evidence that some people can and do “reorient” themselves to heterosexuality.

JONAH was created to help people who want to live in concert with the values of the Jewish Torah, said Charles LiMandri, chief counsel of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund.

The defendants in the case include JONAH, co-founder Arthur Goldberg and JONAH-affiliated counselor Alan Downing.

The lawsuit, first filed in November, is being heard as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, considers whether to sign a bill that outlaws such therapies for minors.

Mr. Christie, who is running for re-election, said through a spokesman in March that he “does not believe in conversion therapy,” but still is weighing whether to sign the bill. Opponents of the bill protested that some of the lurid testimony the New Jersey lawmakers heard about reorientation therapy was completely inaccurate.

The lawsuit contends that JONAH and its top associates “falsely claimed that their services were effective in changing a person’s sexual orientation.”

The plaintiffs paid $60 to $100 an hour for services that led only to depression and emotional harm and did not result in change, the complaint said.

The four men said they also suffered abuse in the JONAH therapy sessions.

Plaintiffs Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger and Chaim Levin said Mr. Downing asked them to partially or fully disrobe in private or in group sessions as part of their months of therapy. Mr. Levin said he was asked to relive past sexual abuse as part of a group session, while the fourth plaintiff, Sheldon Bruck, said he was asked to snap a rubber band on his wrist when he felt same-sex attractions.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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