A first-of-its kind lawsuit challenging the practice of gay "conversion therapy" is winding its way through the New Jersey legal system. On Monday, lawyers representing a counseling center, its director and an affiliated "life coach" filed an initial response to the suit, arguing that the complaint is without merit and that some people can experience "relief from unwanted same-sex attraction" through counseling.
The lawsuit, brought under New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act, alleges that the counseling center, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, co-founder Arthur Goldberg and life coach Alan Downing repeatedly misled the plaintiffs -- four former patients and two of their mothers -- by telling them that JONAH's services would succeed in changing a person's sexual orientation from gay to straight.
"Plaintiffs relied on Defendants' misrepresentations in paying for their services -- services that can cost participants more than $10,000 per year for individual and group sessions as well as weekend retreats," the lawsuit states. These misrepresentations, the suit continues, "caused Plaintiffs to suffer depression and other emotional harm when they were unable to change their sexual orientation using Defendants' services."
Charles S. LiMandri, an attorney working on behalf of JONAH, disputed all the issues raised in the suit, beginning with the claim that anyone at the center promised its services could change a patient's sexual orientation. "My clients don't make those kind of promises to anyone" LiMandri said, adding that the plaintiffs signed statements stating that they were not guaranteed any particular result.
LiMandri, who works with the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a legal group that describes its mission as "defending religious freedom," added that "hundreds" of people have, in fact, been "helped by my clients over the years."
"How can it be fraudulent when people can, in fact, change?," LiMandri said. "We don't promise that everyone does, but people do, people can, and people have."
Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment on the latest development. "We are reviewing defendants' answer that we received yesterday and are set to advance the litigation process," said Sam Wolfe, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who filed the suit.
While anecdotal evidence of the benefits and harms of so-called conversion therapy abound on both sides of the aisle, there are no rigorous scientific studies showing either that the practice can actually change a patient's sexual orientation, or that it will necessarily harm someone who undergoes it. The mainstream mental health community, however, has rejected conversion therapy as potentially harmful and ineffective.
The practice is currently under the spotlight in California, as well, where legislation was recently signed banning licensed therapists from performing it on minors. That law is temporarily on hold while a court reviews two lawsuits alleging it is unconstitutional.