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Jury Rules LGBT Conversion Therapy Group Used Fraudulent Consumer Practices

The New Jersey case — which went through a full trial this month — was the first of its kind.

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An organization that claimed it could turn gay people straight used fraudulent practices to lure clients, a New Jersey jury ruled Thursday in a first-of-its-kind case that has been watched closely as a bellwether for the increasingly scrutinized practice of LGBT conversation therapy.

Filed by three young men and two of their parents, the lawsuit argues that JONAH, short for Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, violated New Jersey's consumer protection law. The group promised their conversion therapy program could be an effective cure for the mental illness of homosexuality, the lawsuit said, even though there is no scientifically sound evidence that homosexuality can be changed or that it is a mental illness. The lawsuit also alleged brutal techniques used on the clients.

“Conversion therapy and homophobia are based on the same central lie – that gay people are broken and need to be fixed," David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center and lead attorney for the case said in a statement shortly after the jury's verdict. "Conversion therapists, including the defendants in this case, sell fake cures that don’t work and can seriously harm the unsuspecting people who fall into this trap.”

Filed in 2012, the complaint said that the young men were required to stand naked as part of their therapy and, in one exercise, were told to wrestle away oranges representing testicles from each other. In another exercise, a client said he beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket until his hands bled.

In February, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Peter Bariso Jr ruled in a pre-trial decision that the jury could not hear testimony from conversion therapy proponents, including Joseph Nicolosi and Christopher Doyle, who argued that homosexuality is a disorder.

“[T]he theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but — like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it — instead is outdated and refuted," Bariso ruled at the time.

The jury's verdict found that JONAH must refund thousands of dollars paid by former clients for violating New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act, NJ.com reported.

“I was told from the beginning, gay to straight is possible,” Benjamin Unger, one of the plaintiffs, testified during the trail. “Those are the words. That is what I was promised. I felt like I was being deceived.”

New Jersey banned conversion therapy in 2012, and the Illinois legislature passed a ban on conversion therapy for LGBT youth in May. Similar bans are on the books in California, the District of Columbia, and Oregon.

The Obama administration took a stance against conversion therapy in April of this year, saying, “The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.”

Dominic Holden is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Dominic Holden at dominic.holden@buzzfeed.com.

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