This is going to be a very interesting lawsuit to watch. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a consumer fraud lawsuit, apparently the first of its kind, against a New Jersey clinic that claims to be able to turn gay people straight through “reversion therapy.” Calling such therapy “a dangerous and discredited practice that claims to convert people from gay to straight,” the SPLC says:
The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, charges that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by providing conversion therapy claiming to cure clients of being gay.
It is the first time a conversion therapy provider has been sued for fraudulent business practices. The lawsuit describes how the plaintiffs – four young men and two of their parents – were lured into JONAH’s services through deceptive practices.
“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable gay men and lesbians out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”
The lawsuit describes how the underlying premise of conversion therapy – that a person can “convert” to heterosexuality – has no basis in scientific fact. Conversion therapy has been discredited or highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. It is the longstanding consensus of the behavioral and social sciences that homosexuality is a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.
Customers of JONAH’s services typically pay a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions. The lawsuit describes sessions that involved clients undressing in front of a mirror and even a group session where young men were instructed to remove their clothing and stand naked in a circle with the counselor, Downing, who was also undressed. Another session involved a subject attempting to wrest away two oranges, which were used to represent testicles, from another individual.
“Sadly, there is no accountability for those who practice conversion therapy,” said Michael Ferguson, a conversion therapy survivor and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “They play blindly with deep emotions and create an immense amount of self-doubt for the client. They seize on your personal vulnerability, and tell you that being gay is synonymous with being less of a man. They further misrepresent themselves as having the key to your new orientation.”
There’s little question that they are right, of course. And the key here legally is that JONAH is set up as an actual counseling service, not a religious organization. There are many things done by religious organizations that would undoubtedly be viewed as fraudulent if they were done by a business. The fact that this is a business means they likely won’t get the benefit of the First Amendment protections for religious beliefs and practices.