A New Jersey jury ordered an organization that offers "gay conversion therapy" to pay more than $70,000 for defrauding four former clients.
In a unanimous decision, the jurors found that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a New Jersey-based nonprofit that works almost exclusively with religious clients, engaged in fraud by peddling unscientific cures for homosexuality.
"Through the course of the trial we were able to show conversion therapy to be a hoax," Sam Wolfe, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told VICE News. "Their entire program is based on the idea being gay is a disorder… but that's been scientifically disproved."
JONAH's conversion program subjects clients to intense and often bizarre therapeutic techniques designed to discourage attraction to the same sex. One of the plaintiffs, Chaim Levin, who grew up in an Orthodox community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, first sought help from JONAH seven years ago, when he was just 18 years old. Levin was made to undergo "healthy touch" exercises, and told to "cradle other participants like a baby. "
JONAH referred its patients to Alan Downing, a life coach who encouraged his patients to blame their mothers for making them gay. He counseled one defendant to imagine his mother was a pillow, and then encouraged him to beat the pillow with a tennis racket. According to the lawsuit one JONAH counselor also made clients touch their genitals while he watched.
"This case has given me back my life," Levin told VICE News following the verdict. Levin is now out of the closet and married to a man. He works to promote acceptance of LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox Jewish community where homophobia and conversion therapy are both widespread.
"I want to warn others considering conversion therapy — going through it is a major risk for gay people's well-being," he told VICE News.
More than 70 individuals and organizations in 20 states currently offer conversion therapy services, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collects data on the practice and assisted in Levin's defense.
Wolfe, a civil rights attorney and advocate with the Southern Poverty Law Center, argued during the trial that JONAH's entire gay conversion program rested on widely discredited science and constituted fraud.
"This is not legitimate therapy," testified Lee Beckstead, a psychologist who was called as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. "It's confusing, it's misleading. It's even reckless, and it's harmful. It's worse than snake oil."
Lawyers representing JONAH had tried to call their own expert witnesses to defend what they considered the science behind conversion therapy. But in early May, before the jury trial began, New Jersey Supreme Court Judge Peter Bariso refused to allow the testimony, ruling that the expert opinions were invalid. In a decision that drew substantial media attention, he wrote, "The 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."
During a three-week jury trial, the plaintiffs — three Orthodox Jews and a Mormon — told the jury that the conversion experience was deeply traumatic.
Gay conversion therapy is already facing increased scrutiny from lawmakers. In April, President Barack Obama called for a ban on the practice.
"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," Obama said.
Congressman Ted Lieu of Los Angeles introduced a bill in May that would ban the practice on the federal level. California, Oregon, the District of Columbia, and New Jersey already prohibit minors from undergoing programs designed to alter sexual preferences.
But Thursday's decision may open the door to a flurry of courtroom challenges against those who offer to cure homosexuality.
"It's a warning signal to conversion therapists that they can be held liable in a court of law, " Wolfe said.
The ruling does not technically shutter JONAH or legally prevent it from continuing to offer therapy, but Wolfe noted that it is hard to see how JONAH can continue following the court's decision. The judge is expected to rule soon on a request from the plaintiffs to shut down JONAH for good.
JONAH did not return calls from VICE News requesting comment.
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro