- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — A nonprofit that promised to turn gays heterosexual instead offered “junk science” and lies, an attorney for four young men told jurors Wednesday during opening statements in a fraud trial involving so-called gay conversion therapy.

But an attorney for the New Jersey group, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, said during his statement that even the plaintiffs’ experts will testify that its methods are commonly used by therapists and that some patients have reported successful experiences.

The four plaintiffs sued Jersey City-based JONAH in 2012, claiming the group violated state consumer fraud laws by characterizing homosexuality as a mental disorder and claiming it could successfully change patients’ sexual orientation. The plaintiffs say they underwent treatment that included being told to spend more time naked with their fathers and participating in role-playing in which they were subjected to anti-gay slurs in a locker room setting.

“My clients needed help but JONAH lied and JONAH made it worse,” plaintiffs’ attorney David Diniello told jurors. “All they got was junk science and so-called cures.”

Three of the four plaintiffs were young men from Orthodox Jewish families in Brooklyn, Diniello said, who were grappling with their sexuality in a culture in which “there were no gay people” and there was pressure to marry and have children. The fourth, Michael Ferguson, is a Mormon who sought out JONAH.

Attorney Charles LiMandri, representing JONAH, said none of the four asked for their money back at the time.

“All four of these men left JONAH on good terms, speaking glowingly” of their experience and referring it to friends, he said. It was only after being contacted by activists that they denounced the organization, he said.

“The plaintiffs became aggressors after they left JONAH to destroy JONAH,” LiMandri said.

According to the lawsuit, one plaintiff said he was told to beat a pillow, representing his mother, with a tennis racket. The lawsuit says additional methods used by counselors included making patients strip naked during individual or group therapy sessions and subjecting them to verbal abuse.

The lawsuit is the latest court battle in New Jersey regarding conversion therapy, a practice that has come under fire from gay rights groups, which are trying to ban it in more than a dozen states.

Lawyers for JONAH have argued that debate continues among scientists about whether sexual orientation is fixed or changeable and whether conversion therapy is harmful. They charge that plaintiffs are seeking to “shut down the debate by making one viewpoint on the issue literally illegal.”

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.

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