By Peter Rudegeair
(Reuters) - Four gay men who underwent treatment designed to change their sexual orientation filed a lawsuit in New Jersey on Tuesday accusing their therapists of fraud, in what may be the first suit of its kind against conversion therapists.
Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a Jersey City-based non-profit organization, falsely claimed to be able to eliminate the four men's homosexual desires through a scientifically proven process, according to a complaint filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey.
JONAH clients would pay a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions.
The plaintiffs charge that during therapy sessions they were sometimes ordered to remove all of their clothing; in other sessions they were told to beat effigies of their mothers with tennis rackets or were subjected to homosexual slurs, according to the complaint.
Another JONAH client was instructed to break through a human barricade to retrieve a pair of oranges, drink the juice from them and place them down his pants to symbolize the recovery of his testicles and, by extension, his heterosexuality, according to Michael Ferguson, one of the plaintiffs.
The so-called conversion therapy that JONAH practices is "unconscionable and a sham" and a violation of New Jersey's consumer protection laws, said Sam Wolfe, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups representing the plaintiffs, at a press conference on Tuesday.
JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg and JONAH-affiliated counselor Alan Downing, each of whom were also named in the suit, did not return calls requesting comment.
Since it began operations over a decade ago, JONAH has provided its conversion therapy to thousands of clients, according Christine P. Sun of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Despite its name, JONAH is not a religious-based organization, though it does target Orthodox communities in New York and advertises in Jewish publications, Chaim Levin, one of the plaintiffs, told reporters.
Professional groups that have been highly critical of conversion therapy include the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and other peer organizations, the complaint says. The notion that an individual's sexual orientation can be changed has been rejected by the American Psychiatric Association, the complaint adds.
States are beginning to take action against providers of conversion therapy. California outlawed the practice for minors in October, and a New Jersey state assemblyman has introduced a bill that would do the same for his state.
The amount of damages the plaintiffs are seeking was not specified but includes the costs of JONAH therapy sessions, the costs of mental health services to address alleged damages from JONAH's treatments and attorneys' fees. They are also seeking the revocation of JONAH's business license.
(Reporting By Peter Rudegeair; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Todd Eastham)