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Gay-conversion, Jersey City-based JONAH to close in court settlement

Michael Ferguson, right, testified against JONAH this summer. Here, he stands with his husband, Seth Anderson.
Michael Ferguson, right, testified against JONAH this summer. Here, he stands with his husband, Seth Anderson.

JONAH, the Jersey-City-based organization whose website says that it works with “those struggling with unwanted same-sex sexual attractions (SSA) and with families whose loved ones are involved in homosexuality,” has agreed to close, take down its website, reimburse the plaintiffs and their families, and pay $3.5 million in legal fees.

That settlement, made public last Friday, was the result of a trial in June, where a jury, after deliberating for two and a half hours, found the group guilty of consumer fraud.

Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, as the group is called (it used to be Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality but softened the name a few years ago) was sued by three young men who offered toe-curling details about the therapies they had undergone in an attempt to change their sexual orientation.

As we wrote on July 1, “JONAH’s co-directors, Arthur Abba Goldberg and Elaine Berk, and a consultant and fellow defendant, Alan Downing, argued that one-third of the clients with whom they worked since 1999 have overcome same-sex attractions. They argued that homosexuality was a ‘disorder’ that could be overcome with an amalgam of religious and scientific techniques, although they acknowledged that none of their staff was a licensed psychiatrist, social worker, or therapist.”

Mr. Goldberg is a disbarred lawyer who spent some time in federal prison for mail fraud and conspiracy. His interest in conversion therapy began after he was released from prison, when his son came out as gay, and so did Elaine Berk’s.

JONAH’s treatment plans included telling its clients to hit pillows with tennis rackets while screaming “Mommy!” Its retreats, set in secluded camps, were conducted by mainly naked counselors for the benefit of almost entirely naked patients, and were said to involve reenactment of the act of sliding naked from their mothers’ birth canals.

JONAH’s methods were both unorthodox and unsuccessful, as the trial this summer brought out in mortifying detail.

The Southern Poverty Law Center represented the plaintiffs in their suit against JONAH, working with white-shoe Manhattan law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and the Newark firm Lite DePalma Greenberg, and the lawyers put out a press release.

“JONAH’s conversion therapy program harmed countless LGBT people and their families,” it read. “JONAH peddled discredited, pseudo-scientific treatments to people who weren’t sick, who weren’t broken, and who needed nothing but love and support.”

“We obviously are happy with the strong ruling from Judge Bariso,” Steven Fulop said. Mr. Fulop, who is Jewish, is the mayor of Jersey City; Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. oversaw the trial and the settlement. “Particularly because Jersey City has such a strong LGBT community, we feel that JONAH has no place in Jersey City.

“Or, for that matter, anywhere.

“Obviously, coming from a city that just last week was ranked with a perfect score for LGBT outreach, and that has done so much in extending transgender care, diversity is very important to us.” Mayor Fulop was talking about the Human Rights Campaign’s municipal equality index, which ranked Jersey City first in the state in LGBT-inclusive laws and policies, and named it as one of 47 municipalities across the country to get a perfect rating.

“It is obviously important that an organization like JONAH doesn’t get any traction because it is fraudulent at the core,” Mr. Fulop said. So we are happy that Judge Bariso made such a strong ruling.”

JONAH has not yet taken down its website, and its directors, Mr. Goldberg and Ms. Berk, stand by their organization and their beliefs. In response to an email asking their reaction, they sent this response:

“The tragic miscarriage of justice which occurred in the JONAH case reflects the near triumph of political correctness and the gay activist agenda in the USA. We long for the day when the outcome in the JONAH case will be recognized as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern history. So many of the court’s outrageous pre-trial rulings such as not allowing our six defense experts to testify, the equally outrageous rulings that calling homosexuality ‘disordered’ violates the consumer fraud act, and the ruling during the trial which prohibited our attorney from arguing our freedom of religion 1st Amendment rights, ended any real chance for a fair trial and verdict. However, we fervently believe that the Torah’s traditional values on sexuality and the family will triumph in the end because these universal laws produce the most just societies which offer G-d given truths for all humanity to follow.”

The claim about the six defense experts perhaps needs some explanation.

When JONAH tried to have six witnesses explain why homosexuality is an illness that can be cured, Judge Bariso did bar them.

“The overwhelming weight of scientific authority concludes that homosexuality is not a disorder or abnormal,” the judge wrote in a decision last February. “The universal acceptance of that scientific conclusion — save for outliers such as JONAH — requires that any expert opinions to the contrary must be barred.

“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,” he concluded.

With this last settlement, it seems that the final leg in JONAH’s journey is over.

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