Jury to hear opening arguments in New Jersey ‘gay conversion’ trial

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From left, Michael Ferguson, Chaim Lavin, Ben Unger and Sheldon Bruck are suing a New Jersey organization for consumer fraud for offering "gay conversion" therapy services.

From left, Michael Ferguson, Chaim Lavin, Ben Unger and Sheldon Bruck are suing a New Jersey organization for consumer fraud for offering “gay conversion” therapy services.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — A jury in northern New Jersey is scheduled to hear opening arguments in the fraud trial of a nonprofit that offers so-called “gay conversion” therapy.

Four men and two of their mothers sued the organization, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, under New Jersey’s consumer fraud laws in 2012.

The men contend the organization violated the laws by characterizing homosexuality as a mental disorder and claiming it could successfully change patients’ sexual orientation. They say they underwent treatment that included being told to spend more time naked with their fathers and participating in role-playing in which they were subjected to anti-gay slurs in a locker room setting.

The nonprofit contends there’s still debate over whether human sexual orientation is changeable and that it isn’t an issue for courts to decide.

Opening statements in the case are Wednesday.

The lawsuit against Jersey City-based Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, is the latest court battle in New Jersey regarding conversion therapy, a practice that has come under fire from gay rights groups, which are trying to ban it in more than a dozen states.

JONAH, its co-founder and an affiliated counselor who provided conversion therapy were sued in by four young men who underwent the treatment for varying periods of time from 2007 to 2009. The mothers of two of the men joined the suit.

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According to the lawsuit, one plaintiff said he was told to beat a pillow, representing his mother, with a tennis racket. The lawsuit says additional methods used by counselors included making patients strip naked during individual or group therapy sessions and subjecting them to anti-gay slurs.

The plaintiffs claim JONAH violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud laws by engaging in “unconscionable practices, deception, fraud, false pretenses, false promises and misrepresentations” by characterizing homosexuality as a mental disorder and claiming it could successfully change patients’ sexual orientation.

Lawyers for JONAH have argued that debate continues among scientists about whether sexual orientation is fixed or changeable and whether conversion therapy is harmful. They charge that plaintiffs are seeking to “shut down the debate by making one viewpoint on the issue literally illegal.”

Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a law in 2013 banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy in New Jersey. Two court challenges to the ban, one by a couple and their son and one by a group that included two licensed therapists, were dismissed by a federal judge and later affirmed by a federal appeals court.

Case files are here

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