Jurors began deliberations Wednesday afternoon on whether gay conversion therapy constitutes fraud. The verdict comes after the close of a three-week trial that has drawn national attention to so-called “ex-gay” or “gay conversion” therapy, which aims to turn gay people straight using some highly controversial techniques.
Although gay-to-straight conversion therapy was most prevalent in evangelical Christian communities in the Midwest and in the South nearly a decade ago, a Jewish group called Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, has been doing this same “reparative” therapy since opening in Jersey City in 1999.
In 2012, six plaintiffs – four former JONAH clients and two of their parents – filed a lawsuit against JONAH, alleging that the group misrepresented homosexuality as a changeable mental disorder, advertised a strong gay-to-straight success rate, and assured the young men that after two to four years in the therapy, they’d be heterosexual.
Years later, they’re still gay. The jury is now deciding whether this therapy – which cost a considerable amount of money and ultimately did not work – is fraudulent. The verdict is expected late Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.
If the jury rules in favor of JONAH, the clinic will likely continue operating. But if the jury rules in favor of the plaintiffs, on top of compensating the former clients for harm done, JONAH will also lose its business license and will be forced to close its doors altogether.
JONAH was started by two Jewish couples, Arthur and Jane Goldberg of Jersey City and Theodore and Elaine Berk of Harrington Park, after both of their sons, who were friends at NYU, came out as gay. Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, who run JONAH, do not lead the therapy themselves; they have a network of referral counselors – some licensed professionals and others unlicensed life coaches – who run the sessions, in Jersey City and across the country.
JONAH was represented at trial by attorney Charles LiMandri of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a California-based legal nonprofit known for taking on religious freedom cases. In the courtroom, LiMandri emphasized that JONAH never promised their clients any results one way or the other, and he reminded jurors that before beginning the therapy, JONAH clients signed paperwork acknowledging that results are not guaranteed. LiMandri also reiterated that each of the plaintiffs left JONAH on good terms, and only when approached by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil liberties nonprofit in Alabama, did the plaintiffs express any dissatisfaction or loathing towards JONAH and its counselors.
“[JONAH] had been opened for approaching 15 years, and no one ever brought a complaint of any type, certainly no lawsuits,” LiMandri said in a phone interview with this reporter in May, prior to the trial. “And then this one complaint came out of nowhere. These guys had all been gone from JONAH for over a year, and they all left early and on good terms. Only after JONAH, at a press conference to stop conversion therapy nationwide, were they then identified [by SPLC] as these gay activists who wanted to be in a lawsuit.”
Plaintiff Ben Unger, 27, testified at trial about one group therapy session in which he was forced to re-imagine a pillow as his own mother, and to then beat that pillow as hard as he possibly could, as if he were killing her. This technique reflects the reparative therapy principle that being too close to one’s mother can play a major role in turning a child gay.
“I was told that if I wasn’t changing, it was my fault because I wasn’t working hard enough,” Unger said by phone prior to the trial.
In another group therapy session, plaintiff Chaim Levin was allegedly forced to recreate scenes of traumatic sexual abuse from his childhood, according to court documents.
The JONAH lawsuit brought by SPLC marks the first time gay conversion therapists have ever been taken to court on the grounds of consumer fraud.
The trial came just one month after Obama publicly denounced gay conversion therapy in April and announced his wishes to ban it for minors by licensed professionals. (Such bans are already in place in Oregon, California, New Jersey and D.C.) But what makes this case so unique is that it deals primarily with adults, not minors, and primarily with life coaches, not licensed professionals. So JONAH has been operating outside any laws or bans the government has in place.
It’s clear, then, that this is not simply a small-town, local lawsuit; this trial is one of many steps SPLC is now taking to end gay conversion therapy altogether. A jury decision in favor of the plaintiffs – an SPLC victory – may very well have national ramifications for gay conversion therapy as a whole.