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Jury: New Jersey nonprofit that offered 'gay conversion' therapy violated consumer fraud act

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JERSEY CITY, New Jersey — A nonprofit organization that claimed it could turn gay men straight violated New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act, a jury concluded Thursday in a civil trial that an attorney for the plaintiffs called "a momentous event" for LGBT rights.

The jury said that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, co-founder Arthur Goldberg and counselor Alan Downing made misrepresentations and engaged in unconscionable business practices.

Three men and two parents were awarded about $72,000 in damages. The judge will rule later on their request to revoke the company's license, plaintiffs' attorneys said.

"This is a momentous event in the history of LGBT rights," attorney David Dinielli said. "The same lies that motivate gay conversion therapy motivate homophobia — that gay people are broken and need to be fixed. The strength of our plaintiffs brought that to light."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued during the trial that the group, known by the acronym JONAH, claimed a success rate that wasn't backed up by actual statistics and used therapy methods that had no scientific basis, including having one client beat a pillow, meant to represent his mother, with a tennis racket.

In an emailed statement, defense attorney Charles LiMandri called the verdict "a sad day, not just for my clients, but for America."

"All of us can control our sexual behavior and each of us has not only the right but the obligation to decide what is right and wrong about our behavior," the statement added.

LiMandri said he would "seek justice on appeal."

LiMandri argued during the trial that JONAH didn't make guarantees and should be allowed to offer help to people struggling with their sexuality. He also said none of the plaintiffs complained about the therapy during or immediately after participating in it and sued only after connecting with activists who wanted to shut JONAH down.

"Sometimes you need distance to survey the wreckage," plaintiff Michael Ferguson, who was raised as a Mormon and sought out JONAH in 2008, said after Thursday's verdict.

The trial began this month and featured testimony from the men about the group's methods, which they said included engaging in role play that involved a locker room scene where gay slurs were used. JONAH presented witnesses who said the therapy helped them overcome their same-sex attractions.

But Goldberg acknowledged during cross-examination that the group claimed a "success" rate of 65 to 75 percent to turn gay men to straight even though it didn't keep its own statistics and relied on anecdotal evidence from counselors.

The original four plaintiffs, Ferguson and three from Orthodox Jewish families, alleged the nonprofit exploited them with false promises as they struggled with their same-sex attractions in strict religious environments where they were expected to marry women and have children.

One man dropped out of the suit, but his mother remained.

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. Those decisions were later affirmed by a federal appeals court.

New Jersey's ban wasn't an issue during the trial because Goldberg and Downing aren't licensed therapists, Dinielli said.

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