SPLC Files Fraud Suit Over Reversion Therapy


This is going to be a very interesting lawsuit to watch. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a consumer fraud lawsuit, apparently the first of its kind, against a New Jersey clinic that claims to be able to turn gay people straight through “reversion therapy.” Calling such therapy “a dangerous and discredited practice that claims to convert people from gay to straight,” the SPLC says:

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, charges that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by providing conversion therapy claiming to cure clients of being gay.

It is the first time a conversion therapy provider has been sued for fraudulent business practices. The lawsuit describes how the plaintiffs – four young men and two of their parents – were lured into JONAH’s services through deceptive practices.

“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable gay men and lesbians out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”

The lawsuit describes how the underlying premise of conversion therapy – that a person can “convert” to heterosexuality – has no basis in scientific fact. Conversion therapy has been discredited or highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. It is the longstanding consensus of the behavioral and social sciences that homosexuality is a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.

Customers of JONAH’s services typically pay a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions. The lawsuit describes sessions that involved clients undressing in front of a mirror and even a group session where young men were instructed to remove their clothing and stand naked in a circle with the counselor, Downing, who was also undressed. Another session involved a subject attempting to wrest away two oranges, which were used to represent testicles, from another individual.

“Sadly, there is no accountability for those who practice conversion therapy,” said Michael Ferguson, a conversion therapy survivor and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “They play blindly with deep emotions and create an immense amount of self-doubt for the client. They seize on your personal vulnerability, and tell you that being gay is synonymous with being less of a man. They further misrepresent themselves as having the key to your new orientation.”

There’s little question that they are right, of course. And the key here legally is that JONAH is set up as an actual counseling service, not a religious organization. There are many things done by religious organizations that would undoubtedly be viewed as fraudulent if they were done by a business. The fact that this is a business means they likely won’t get the benefit of the First Amendment protections for religious beliefs and practices.

Comments

  1. Sastra says

    Interesting lawsuit for several reasons. I’d be interested to see what effect winning it would have, if any, on all the pseudoscientific ‘woo’ therapies out there. Many of them seem to hide from accountability behind their ‘spiritual’ beliefs.

    And what then happens to those counseling services which helps you get rid of demons? And ghosts? Could be the tip of the iceberg.

  2. Ben P says

    I would be skeptical of the Plaintiff’s ability to win this case under my state’s law, but many many states have stronger consumer protection laws than my state does. I don’t know what the standards are under new jersey law. I do know the SPLC has some pretty good lawyers and don’t think they’d waste money on chasing this.

  3. eric says

    I could easily be wrong, but I thought fraud had to have a component of knowing/intentional deception. I.e., the people running this joint have to be aware their treatment doesn’t work. Or they would have to be misrepresenting the evidence on it. If they really believe it works and don’t make false claims of past success, how is this different from selling homeopathic crap on the shelves?

  4. Artor says

    Eric, if JONAH is running a business on the basis of their professional skills as therapists, they have a responsibility to be informed and up-to-date on their field. If they don’t know that reversion therapy is universally reviled by real therapists and the entire medical profession, they are either a) not licensed therapists, b) criminally incompetent, or c) criminally fraudulent.

  5. ImaginesABeach says

    The fact that this is a business means they likely won’t get the benefit of the First Amendment protections for religious beliefs and practices.

    I’d like to think this is true, but the recent cases about contraception coverage make me a bit uncertain.

  6. eric says

    Artor, thanks for that. But if (a) is true and they tell their clients up front that they aren’t licensed therapists, what do you get them on? At that point they’re just basically mediums – which AFAIK is not illegal in most states. False advertising is illegal, but honest advertising of a complete crap service or widget, isn’t.

  7. Ben P says

    I could easily be wrong, but I thought fraud had to have a component of knowing/intentional deception. I.e., the people running this joint have to be aware their treatment doesn’t work. Or they would have to be misrepresenting the evidence on it. If they really believe it works and don’t make false claims of past success, how is this different from selling homeopathic crap on the shelves?

    You are generally correct as to common law fraud, but most states have consumer protection statutes that prohibit varying degrees of conduct that fall short of fraud, usually described merely as “deceptive” or “unconscionable” conduct.

    Take a used car salesman for example. Suppose I sell a repaired salvage title car, but I very studiously make no representations whatsoever about the cars history or its past. When someone sues me saying I defrauded them, I say “I would have been fully willing to tell you about the title if you’d asked, but you didn’t ask!”

    That’s a very tough case to prove under common law fraud, but may be much easier under a consumer protection statute.

  8. vmanis1 says

    Now let me get this clear. Jonah was told by God to convert the people of Nineveh. So he gets on a boat and goes to Tarshish (Tartessus), on the other end of the Mediterranean, when God could have given him a GPS. The weather gets bad and the sailors throw him in the water and a big fish or whale swallows him, and pukes him out. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh again. Jonah does it, converts all the inhabitants, and then gets pissed off with God, for making it so easy. God plants a gourd to give Jonah shade from the sun, and then kills the gourd. Jonah is really pissed off with God.

    As for the conversion itself, it didn’t work. The Assyrians came down and captured the Israelites, and took them off into slavery. Then the Assyrians were wiped out, and nowadays Nineveh is some ruins near Mosul.

    The joys of conversion? I think that overall the gourd came out best in this story.

  9. StevoR says

    @5.Artor says:

    Eric, if JONAH is running a business on the basis of their professional skills as therapists, they have a responsibility to be informed and up-to-date on their field. If they don’t know that reversion therapy is universally reviled by real therapists and the entire medical profession, they are either a) not licensed therapists, b) criminally incompetent, or c) criminally fraudulent.

    I’d add option d) all of the above!

    Go Southern Poverty Law Center!

    Another session involved a subject attempting to wrest away two oranges, which were used to represent testicles, from another individual.

    Oranges for testicles? Wrestling with men for them?

    Wait, what, how does that even ..? How do they think that will?

    They’re trying to convert people *away* from teh Ghey?

    What’s their next step, bobbing for dates or walnuts in a bowl of chocloate and cream or something?

  10. StevoR says

    D’oh! Blockquote fail there. Y’all can work out where I’m sure.

    Plus I misspelt chocolate.

    Wish we could edit comments here for things like that. Oh well.

  11. bradleybetts says

    “…a group session where young men were instructed to remove their clothing and stand naked in a circle…”

    What? “Forcing” me to stand naked in a circle of women who are also naked is hardly likely to turn me gay, so why on Earth would it turn these people straight? The “logic” behind these “treatments” is astounding sometimes. As far as I can work out it amounts to nothing more than negative reinforcement designed to allow gay men to be present around things which they would normally find arousing, but experience self-loathing instead of arousal. Fantastic job, guys.

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