After three weeks of trial, a New Jersey jury reached a quick verdict in the case against JONAH, a Jewish ex-gay organization sued under the state’s consumer fraud laws. The jury unanimously found against JONAH on all counts, meaning it will have to pay upwards of $25,000 in damages to the clients and their families for undergoing ex-gay therapy.
The verdict is a big loss for the ex-gay therapy movement. Though JONAH was not permitted to present “expert” testimony — the judge compared it to testimony about the Earth being flat — the extensive trial offered a thorough examination of various ex-gay programs. This included not only the troubling practices of the Alan Downing, the JONAH-affiliated counselor who worked with the plaintiffs, but also a popular People Can Change retreat program called Journey Into Manhood (JiM). Two of the stars of TLC’s My Husband’s Not Gay, both Mormon, testified in the trial on behalf of their experiences with JiM.
The victory for these plaintiffs and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) opens the door to similar challenges across the country that could hold other reparative therapists accountable for their harmful shame-based treatment. It also may encourage other states to follow the lead of California, New Jersey, and D.C. to pass laws banning ex-gay therapy for minors. Challenges to those laws have similarly failed in court.
The judge’s instructions to the jury Thursday morning outlining how they should consider the charges seemed to indicate the inevitability of the outcome. If the jury felt that JONAH presented homosexuality as a “mental illness, disease, disorder or something equivalent” or if they determined that JONAH indicated any kind of “success rate” for reparative therapy, it had to find the organization in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.
Though the organization unsurprisingly had no solid numbers of its success rate, founder Arthur Goldberg admitted under oath to a “general success rate” which he described as “a third, a third, and a third” — a third saw substantial decreases in their same-sex attraction, a third went completely from gay to straight, and a third saw no change. In other words, JONAH’s sales pitch was a 67 percent success rate, a claim for which it had no foundation. JONAH’s witnesses regularly tried walk a line claiming that homosexuality was only disordered from a religious perspective but that the therapy itself was legitimate and not religious in nature; they failed.
SPLC staff attorney Sam Wolfe explained, “This is not a freedom of religion case. It is unlawful to defraud vulnerable individuals and lure them with false promises of orientation change. The lie that individuals can change their sexual orientation if only they work hard enough and pay for enough ‘therapy’ has harmed individuals, families, and religious communities for far too long.”