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Conversion therapy provider must dissolve, pay millions, judge rules

After a jury found the group Jonah guilty of “unconscionable commercial practices” in 2015, its offices reopened under a new name.

One of the country’s most infamous providers of so-called conversion therapy — a contentious practice that tries to change a gay person's sexual orientation — will be forced to pay up to $3.5 million after it was found to be in violation of a 2015 court order to shut down.

“It’s a deterrent and a warning shot,” Michael Ferguson, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told NBC News. “If you’re practicing conversion therapy, make no mistake that you will be found out and you will be punished. We are not going to tolerate these practices on members of our community any longer, particularly the most vulnerable.”

On Monday, Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. of New Jersey Superior Court granted a permanent injunction against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a conversion therapy organization based in Jersey City. After a six-person jury found JONAH guilty of “unconscionable commercial practices” in 2015, its offices reopened under a new name: the Jewish Institute for Global Awareness (JIFGA).

In a 47-page decision, Bariso claimed JIFGA is a “mere continuation of JONAH.” He called upon the organization to “cease any and all operations within 30 days of the entry of this order,” as well as to shut down its website and dissolve all corporate holdings.

Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, who served as the co-directors of JIFGA, will also be “permanently enjoined” from holding any position in executive leadership or sitting on the board of a nonprofit or other tax-exempt entity.

Lastly, the defendants will be held liable for the remainder of the sum awarded by the court four years ago. In that decision, hailed as a “landmark" ruling by opponents of conversion therapy, the court claimed that JONAH had committed fraud by offering services that claimed to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of patients. Nearly every leading medical association has condemned conversion therapy as ineffective and harmful.

In the three-and-a-half week jury trial, former clients of JONAH attested to the extreme harms they experienced as a result of its services. The organization referred patients to conversion therapists like Alan Downing, who plaintiffs testified ordered them to strip naked and beat pillows that represented their mothers in order to “cure” them of their same-sex attractions.

As part of the settlement agreement, JONAH agreed to pay a portion of the plaintiffs’ legal fees. If the organization did not cease its referral services over the next five years, it would be forced to pay the remaining balance of $3.5 million.

Image: David Dinielli
Attorney David Dinielli delivers the opening statements for the plaintiff in a fraud trial against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, (JONAH) on June 3, 2015, in Jersey City, New Jersey.Alex Remnick / The Star-Ledger via AP Pool

David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBTQ rights and special litigation project, could not comment on how much JONAH paid to plaintiffs in 2015 or how much will be awarded as a result of Monday’s verdict. He claimed the settlement was designed to ensure that the organization complied with the injunction, under the threat of incurring further penalty.

“The most important thing was to get the defendants to stop engaging in dangerous behavior that puts young people at risk,” Dinielli told NBC News.

Ferguson, who was at a neuroscience conference in Rome at the time of Monday’s ruling, said he felt a wave of “righteous anger” when he learned that the New Jersey Superior Court had again ordered JONAH to cease all operations.

“There was this profound sense of vindication, that we were finally getting something that felt like it had teeth to it in the ruling,” he said. “When we got our initial ruling on the trial in 2015, it did not feel like it was sufficiently metered relative to the gross offenses of JONAH and the experiences of all the plaintiffs.”

Plaintiffs hope the case will set a precedent in how other states tackle the issue of conversion therapy. Although the Williams Institute, a pro-LGBTQ think tank at UCLA, has estimated that more 700,000 Americans have been subjected to efforts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, the practice remains legal in 32 states. No state has banned conversion therapy on LGBTQ individuals over the age of 18.

But Ferguson believes that New Jersey Superior Court’s emphasis on penalizing JONAH’s activities as fraud opens up an opportunity to target conversion therapy providers in all 50 states. Every state has laws on the books forbidding private entities from advertising fraudulent services, as does the federal government.

“Fraud is already illegal,” Ferguson said. “I'm really hoping that the national strategy adapts so that we begin to enforce and deploy fraud laws that already exist in order to hold individuals accountable.”

That movement has already begun. Last year, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sponsored a pair of federal bills that would classify conversion therapy as “fraud,” but those pieces of legislation both died in committee. In April, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who is gay, reintroduced the Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act, which would prevent the use of Medicaid funding for "reparative" or "ex-gay" treatments.

But as LGBTQ advocacy groups like the Trevor Project and the National Center for Lesbian Rights work to ban conversion therapy across the country, Dinielli hopes this week’s judgment serves an “educational purpose.”

“Our case was the first time that people who had survived conversion therapy had an opportunity to stand in front of a jury and describe what had happened to them,” he said. “We hope that parents around the country will think twice before they encourage or require young people to participate in any effort intended to change their orientation or their gender identity.”