A novel state court suit alleges that a Jersey City organization that purports to help turn gays straight is defrauding customers by selling a service that’s been scientifically debunked.
The plaintiffs say that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) bases its “conversion therapy … on the misguided and erroneous belief that being gay is a mental disorder — a position rejected by the American Psychiatric Association four decades ago.”
The suit, Ferguson v. JONAH, filed Tuesday in Hudson County Superior Court by those who have gone through the therapy and family members who helped pay for it, raises claims under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act.
In addition to damages and restitution, the plaintiffs seek injunctive relief, revoking JONAH’s business license and prohibiting it from carrying on the allegedly fraudulent practices.
Arthur Goldberg, JONAH’s co-founder, says the suit is meritless and designed to create a chilling effect upon speech and programs that assist people in overcoming unwanted same-sex attractions. He says he is in the process of retaining counsel.
JONAH’s program employs the methods of Joseph Nicolosi of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, and Richard Cohen, a psychotherapist who founded the International Healing Foundation in 1990, an organization similar to JONAH.
Those methods are aimed at fostering participants’ male identity in order to cure homosexuality, a condition supposedly brought on by a deficient father-son relationship, a too-close relationship with the opposite sex parent, family dysfunction or child sexual abuse.
Participants are allegedly required to strip nude during sessions, intimately hold other males, spend more time with other nude males in health clubs and bath houses, beat effigies of their mothers with a tennis racket, and absorb invectives such as “faggot” and “homo.”
Also named as a defendant is Alan Downing, an affiliated counselor who provides individual and group therapy sessions, though he’s allegedly not professionally licensed.
Downing allegedly instructed participants to undress in front of him and other participants, and engage in role playing to recreate past experiences of sex abuse and other trauma.
One plaintiff allegedly was told to wear a rubber band around his wrist and snap it every time he felt attracted to a man. Another was made to break through a human chain blocking two oranges — meant to represent testicles — while other participants taunted him.
Participants in this exercise “typically expressed anger and aggressively strived to break through the chain to seize the two oranges, sometimes biting and squeezing them to drink the juice and sometimes placing the oranges down their pants.”
Downing did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
The American Psychiatric Association, the American Counseling Association and other professional organizations have criticized conversion therapy as ineffective and potentially emotionally harmful, the plaintiffs say.
Despite these warnings, the defendants “have nonetheless continued to peddle and practice conversion therapy largely through unlicensed counselors free from oversight by professional associations, licensing boards, or other regulatory agencies,” the plaintiffs say.
Therapists also allegedly tell participants they can’t lead healthy, happy lives as homosexuals and, when the therapy proves ineffective, blame them for not fully devoting themselves to it.
The suit charges that JONAH controverts the CFA’s prohibition of fraudulent sale or advertisement of any “merchandise,” which, by statutory definition, includes services.
With individual sessions priced at $100 and group sessions at $60, JONAH’s services can cost upward of $10,000 per year for each participant, the plaintiffs allege.
Four of the plaintiffs are males who underwent therapy at JONAH for varying periods in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Two plaintiffs are mothers of male plaintiffs who paid for the service, as well as the costs associated with repairing emotional harm JONAH allegedly caused.
They seek compensatory damages in the amount of each plaintiff’s ascertainable loss, revocation of JONAH’s business license, injunctive relief and treble damages and attorney fees.
Leading the plaintiffs’ legal team is the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which calls this the first civil suit against conversion therapists under consumer fraud or any other theory.
The Montgomery, Ala.-based law center has been challenging conversion therapy through its LGBT Rights Project, says staff attorney Samuel Wolfe.
Using the CFA in this context is not a stretch, Wolfe says. “The history of the CFA is one … of constant expansion. … It doesn’t have to be some manner of merchandise.”
At present, there are about 70 therapists practicing conversion therapy in 20 states and the District of Columbia, according to the law center’s website.
The law center has filed complaints against two of them with their professional boards, Wolfe says.
The plaintiffs also are represented pro bono by Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in New York, with Lite DePalma Greenberg in Newark as local New Jersey counsel, also pro bono.
Years before founding JONAH, Goldberg — a former attorney who in the 1980s was an executive vice president for New York underwriting firm Matthews & Wright — pleaded guilty to mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in connection with fraudulent issuance of bonds to finance housing projects in Guam and East St. Louis, Ill. The New Jersey Supreme Court disbarred him in 1995.
Goldberg says his past convictions and disbarment are “totally irrelevant to what I do here,” he says.
“I did the crime; I paid the penalty,” Goldberg says. “It has no bearing on what this work is.”
Goldberg says JONAH will vigorously defend itself in the suit.
“We remain steadfast in our commitment to assist those with unwanted same-sex attractions,” he says.