“Straight guys don’t hang out with other straight guys naked in order to make themselves more straight,” one of the plaintiff’s attorneys told the jury. And the jury agreed.
On Thursday, after a month during which the line between science and God was put on trial, a New Jersey jury found JONAH, a gay conversion therapy organization, guilty of consumer fraud in Hudson County Superior Court. JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (the “H” used to stand for “Homosexuality”), was sued on two counts of consumer fraud by three of the organization’s former clients, including two of their mothers. Plaintiffs contended that the defendants made gross misrepresentations in the sale and advertisement of the JONAH program; and that its commercial practices are unconscionable.
After just two and a half hours in deliberations, the seven person jury awarded the five plaintiffs $72,400 in damages, which will serve to reimburse plaintiff’s payments to the organization, and for the ensuing therapy they sought out in response to the damages caused by the JONAH program. There will be a later hearing (time or date is yet to be set) to determine attorney fees and injunctive relief. The possibility of shutting down JONAH is part of that injunction.
This ruling is the first legal step at challenging the lawfulness of conversion therapy and its methodologies. In 2013, California and New Jersey outlawed conversion therapy for minors, even by licensed mental health professionals (which, by the way, JONAH counselors were not). This suit is another piece in that legal puzzle.
The plaintiffs claimed that JONAH, its Jewish directors, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, and one of its counselors, Alan Downing, a Mormon, violated New Jersey consumer fraud law first by making misrepresentation in sale advertisement of the JONAH program, saying that JONAH is scientifically based; that they have specific success rates; that they could adjust a person’s sexual orientation, i.e. from gay to straight, and that this could be accomplished within a 2-5 year time frame.
“My clients needed help,” said James Bromley, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers from Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which is based in Alabama, during his closing argument. “They went to JONAH. JONAH lied, and JONAH made it worse.” The plaintiffs also contended that JONAH is an unconscionable business practice and acted in bad faith.
The defense argued that JONAH’s ideology and methods are both scientific, and based on Jewish Torah values. They used words like “gender affirmation,” as opposed to “conversion,” “same sex attraction” as opposed to “homosexuality,” and “charges” as opposed to “sexual attraction.”
But the plaintiffs rebuffed the linguistics arguments. “He’s sexually attracted to men,” said Bromley, regarding one of his clients. “If there were a multiple choice test about, ‘What does gay mean?’ that would be the answer.”
In February, the Judge Peter Bariso ruled that it was a violation of the consumer fraud act to call homosexuality a mental illness or disorder. This was the first time such a ruling was made in a United States court. (In fact, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association delistedhomosexuality as a “mental disorder.”)
“This does not mean,” the judge told the seven person jury, “that the defendants had to use a specific word. Rather, if you find the plaintiffs have shown by a preponderance of the evidence even as something equivalent of a mental disease or disorder then you must find that they violated the consumer fraud law.”
And they did.
In one session as a JONAH client, Chaim Levin, one of five plaintiffs engaged in the legal battle, was asked by his counselor to remove his clothes in front of a mirror as a way to rectify “body shame,” while his counselor stood behind him and watched. Downing, his counselor, the instructed him to touch “his manhood.”
The defense claimed that their methods—including “Journey into Manhood” weekends where much of the time was spent doing different naked “processes”—were scientific and did in fact help clients of JONAH who “put in the work.” JONAH brought in witnesses to testify to the success of these exercises. One witness testified to having a happy sex life, but also said he had a “wet noodle,” or had trouble getting an erection for his wife. When the jury was not in the courtroom, the judge responded to a defense witness, “Frankly, I don’t even know how this was a success story.”
The defense also used verses from Genesis and Leviticus 18:22 about the nature of man—God created man and woman who procreate—and the nature of homosexuality as a sign to bolster their case. LiMandri argued that according to Jewish Torah values, homosexuality is a spiritual disorder, and as such, could be treated through teshuva, meaning Jewish repentance, which they translated as healing, and therapy. They also extensively cited Goldberg’s book, Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change.
“I was precluded from mentioning their first amendment defense,” said defense attorney Charles LiMandri from Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, even though, he added, “the judge said we had a first amendment defense.”
The jury was just unconvinced. “The defense just wasn’t there,” said a male juror. “The [type of therapy] just wasn’t right its just not something that’s therapy.” He added: “Mr. Goldberg was a salesman and he lured them in.”
Dr. Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist and previous president of the American Psychological Association of New York County’s Psychiatric Society, affirmed that “There’s nothing scientific about telling people to hit a pillow or get naked.” He has been quoted calling conversion therapy quack therapy. Plus, he added, “most peoples sexual attractions are fixed at a young age,” so there really is no such thing, as JONAH claims, changing from gay to straight. While leaving the court room, Goldberg said “We hope to be exonerated upon appeal. This is not justice.”
This verdict was handed down before a U.S. Supreme Court decision, due shortly, on state bans against same-sex marriage.
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.