TRENTON, N.J. — People who provide gay-to-straight conversion therapy are committing fraud if they describe homosexuality as a mental disorder that can be cured, said a state judge in a ruling civil rights group predicted would deal a serious blow to the treatment’s future across the nation.
The decision by state Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr., gives an edge to the four men and two parents suing Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, accusing the Jersey City organization that promotes the treatment of violating New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.
The decision is bound to have a far-reaching impact, said David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center which brought the lawsuit.
“This ruling is monumental and devastating to the conversion therapy industry,” Dinelli said. “For the first time, a court has ruled that it is fraudulent as a matter of law for conversion therapists to tell clients that they have a mental disorder that can be cured. This is the principal lie the conversion therapy industry uses throughout the country to peddle its quackery to vulnerable clients.”
In his ruling last week Bariso wrote: “It is a misrepresentation in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, in advertising or selling conversion therapy services to describe homosexuality, not as being a normal variation of human sexuality, but as being a mental illness, disease (or) disorder.”
The ruling also said conversion therapists could not advertise their “success rate” of turning people into heterosexuals because “there is no factual basis for calculating these statistics.”
This is Bariso’s second ruling to favor the plaintiffs. The judge also barred the defense from calling several of the controversial treatment’s proponents as witnesses because they had planned to offer scientifically refuted testimony that homosexuality is an illness. In that ruling, he said: “The overwhelming weight of scientific authority concludes that homosexuality is not a disorder or abnormal.”
Charles LiMandri, president and chief counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund that is representing JONAH, said he remains confident a jury will side with his clients “who were only trying to help people.”
JONAH never made money from the treatment, but rather referred clients to therapists who charged for their services, LiMandri said. At no time did they “advertise” success rates — estimated as one-third successful, one-third somewhat beneficial, and one-third unsuccessful, he said. “If they ask, they will be told. I don’t see that as a violation of the consumer fraud act.”
LiMandri said the therapists are not licensed and are often members of the clergy. They were not identifying being gay as a disorder “in a scientific sense,” he said.
“This is not a situation in which people are forced into something they don’t want to do. They are trying to deprive plaintiffs of freedom of choice. Americans want people to have the right to free self determination,” he added. “I believe when the jury hears all the facts. they will ultimately decide in favor of our clients.”
Arthur Goldberg, a co-director at JONAH who is also named in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling. Alan Downing, a life coach and an unlicensed therapist who provides the treatment, is also named in the lawsuit.
Legal issues still remain when the case goes to trial this summer, Dinielli said.
“We also have alleged multiple additional violations of the Consumer Fraud Act — including that JONAH’s program taken as a whole is an unconscionable business practice,” according to an email from Dinielli. “We will go to trial to prove those additional violations and to obtain damages for our clients as well as an order preventing JONAH from continuing to offer its fraudulent program to the public.”
The plaintiffs in the case — Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck, Chaim Levin, Bella Levin and Jo Bruck — claim those went to the therapists were coerced into engaging in demeaning and emotionally damaging behavior, including having to strip naked and beat images of their mothers.
(Susan K. Livio writes for The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)
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