New Jersey Judge Says Gay-to-Straight Conversion Therapy is Consumer Fraud

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 13, 2015

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A New Jersey judge determined last week that it is consumer fraud to describe homosexuality as a curable mental illness in an effort to solicit clients for gay-to-straight conversion therapy.  The ruling, coming in advance of an upcoming lawsuit against an organization offering such treatment, was hailed by civil rights advocates as a significant step in eliminating such treatment across the country.

Lawsuit Filed Against Gay Cure Treatment Center

Four male plaintiffs – Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck, Chaim Levin – filed a lawsuit against the Jews Offering new Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) organization alleging that the Jersey City treatment center falsely promoted a cure for homosexuality.  Claiming that the treatment provided by JONAH was advertised as a therapeutic offering, the plaintiffs say that they, and their parents, were encouraged to pay for a practice that claimed homosexuality to be a treatable mental disorder.

The plaintiffs state that instead of treatment, they were subjected to demeaning and emotionally damaging behavior during sessions which derided them and required them to strip naked or attack effigies of their mothers with baseball bats or tennis rackets. The lawsuit explains that JONAH offered treatment to clients experiencing “sexual confusion,” but in reality implemented humiliating and controversial gay conversion therapy techniques that have been widely criticized, and, in some states, outlawed.

New Jersey Judge Finds Conversion Therapy is Consumer Fraud

The Southern Poverty Law Center brought the suit in New Jersey court on behalf of the four plaintiffs, and, although the civil trial will not get underway until this summer, the judge overseeing the case sent a clear message against gay conversion therapy in this week’s pre-trail hearing.  Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. found that people or organizations that claim to offer gay-to-straight conversion therapy are committing consumer fraud if they describe homosexuality as a mental disorder that can be cured. 

Writing, “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,” Bariso found that any therapy promoting successful gay-to-straight conversions was engaging in false and misleading advertising in violation of New Jersey consumer law.

Judge Bariso’s ruling comes well in advance of the civil trial commencing, and does not necessarily tip the scales fully towards the plaintiffs.  JONAH argues that it never advertised successful gay-to-straight conversions, nor did it provide, or get paid for, any therapy services due to its relationship as a middle-man between clients and therapeutic service providers.  Further, this week’s ruling does not speak to a number of other allegations made by the plaintiffs regarding the abusive and emotionally damaging treatment they suffered.  Despite its limitations, Judge Bariso’s decision provides a clear cause of action against gay conversion therapy providers and serves as a landmark in the ongoing battle to shut such organizations down due to controversial practices.

Impact of New Jersey Gay Therapy Decision

The deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center David Dinelli said after the decision, “This ruling is monumental and devastating to the conversion therapy industry … 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.”

While Dinelli and other opponents of gay conversion therapy have earned a victory in New Jersey, Judge Bariso’s holding only applies to centers in the state.  Still, by taking a unique consumer fraud approach to the issue, it is possible, and even likely, that Judge Bariso has opened the door for more plaintiffs across the country to attack gay conversion therapists from a little-recognized angle.  Given that Judge Bariso’s logic – that homosexuality is not a mental disease that can be treated – is a position that is widely recognized across the country, potential victims of abusive gay-to-straight conversion therapy may find similar success in courts elsewhere.

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