New Jersey trial on gay conversion therapy set to begin

Southern Poverty Law Center Plaintiffs Benjamin Unger and Chaim Levin

Southern Poverty Law Center Plaintiffs Benjamin Unger and Chaim Levin SPLC

Southern Poverty Law Center Plaintiffs Benjamin Unger and Chaim LevinSPLC

Southern Poverty Law Center Plaintiffs Benjamin Unger and Chaim Levin

NEWARK, N.J. — Jurors are expected to hear testimony this week in a lawsuit that claims a nonprofit violated state consumer fraud laws when it offered treatment it said would turn gays into heterosexuals by, among other methods, having them spend more time naked with their fathers.

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

A look at some key points:

THE ALLEGATIONS

JONAH, its co-founder and an affiliated counselor who provided gay conversion therapy were sued in late 2012 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.

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 having them participate in roleplaying in which they were subjected to anti-gay slurs in a locker room setting.

THE ARGUMENTS

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.”

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THE BACKDROP

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.

California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., also have banned gay conversion therapy. About 18 other states were considering bans this year, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court has turned away challenges to both the California and New Jersey bans.

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