An appeals court in New Jersey upheld a $3.5 million judgment against a conversion therapy practice that forced clients to strip naked, cuddle with older men, call each other anti-gay slurs, and beat pillow-effigies of their mothers in order to turn them straight or cisgender. Conversion therapy survivors and practitioners have been in court for close to a decade in the historic case that used consumer protection laws to take down a conversion therapy practice.
“The message today’s decision sends is conversion therapy is every bit as dangerous, harmful and illegal as it was when we won our jury verdict,” said attorney Thomas Kessler, who represented the plaintiffs alongside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Ferguson v. JONAH.
The lawsuit started in 2012, when several former clients and their parents accused Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) of fraud for selling a service that does not exist: changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
With the science on their side, the plaintiffs won a $3.5 million verdict in 2015. In a private agreement, that number was reduced and JONAH agreed to dissolve and stop practicing conversion therapy.
But a couple years later, the founders of JONAH were found to have set up shop under the name “Jewish Institute for Global Awareness” and were still practicing conversion therapy. A court in 2019 reinstated the $3.5 million judgment since JONAH didn’t keep their end of the bargain.
JONAH appealed the ruling, but the appeals court just ruled against them again.
Michael Laffey, who represented JONAH and its owners, said that the ruling this week contained “errors” and his clients are “considering their options” when it comes to a possible appeal.
Since the 2013 lawsuit started, New Jersey passed a conversion therapy ban. But Ferguson v. JONAH shows that conversion therapy bans aren’t enough to stop the harmful practice.
Like all conversion therapy bans in the U.S., New Jersey’s only covers minors, and many of JONAH’s clients were adults. Moreover, their staff members weren’t licensed therapists or mental health professionals; they called themselves “life coaches,” putting them outside the authority of state licensing boards.
Still, the lawsuit shows that there is legal recourse for the people harmed by conversion therapy.
At the 2015 trial, former clients like plaintiff Chaim Levin testified about JONAH’s bizarre practices. Levin said that men were forced to strip naked in front of mirrors and insult their own bodies and beat pillows with tennis rackets while being told that the pillows represented their mothers.
He and others said that they had to shower naked together and then engage in activities like putting on a blindfold while others shouted slurs like “faggot,” “homo,” “pussy,” and “queer” at them. He said that they were told to reenact their own births by wiggling out of blankets, again naked.
Clients were also made to cuddle with other men to learn about “healthy touch” as slow music played. Sometimes they were encouraged to cuddle with older male volunteers to receive “Golden Father Energy.”
“There was some really, really, really slow music playing in the background and [JONAH coach] Alan Downing was in the middle sitting there like kind of watching over us and leading the cuddling healthy touch group session,” testified another plaintiff, Benjamin Unger.
The jury deliberated for only three hours and decided that the services JONAH provided don’t count as “therapy” and violate the state’s consumer protection laws. The judge said that JONAH’s practices were based on “obsolete and discredited scientific theories” about homosexuality and cited mental health organizations’ opposition to conversion therapy.
But even now, in 2021, JONAH is still fighting the ruling and trying to keep practicing conversion therapy because they believe that homosexuality is a “sexual deviation.”
“Conversion therapy works largely underground,” said Kessler. “It’s extremely important that litigation like ours exists to root out this dangerous practice.”
“The resources and enterprises that exist to fight conversion therapy are still on the job, and we’ll continue to fight these battles to prevent more harm to these incredibly vulnerable victims.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the lawsuit started in 2013 instead of 2012. We regret the error.