The lawsuit was the first in the country to challenge conversion therapy on consumer-fraud grounds. Though the ruling applies only to JONAH, it will likely have a national chilling effect on the practice. Three states—New Jersey, California, Oregon—and the District of Columbia have already banned conversion therapy for minors, and several more are weighing similar laws.
“This verdict is a monumental moment in the movement to ensure the rights and acceptance of LGBT people in America,” said David Dinielli, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the lead attorney for the case, in a statement. “Conversion therapy and homophobia are based on the same central lie—that gay people are broken and need to be fixed.”
National sentiment is already turning against conversion-therapy providers. A bill introduced in Congress would ban conversion therapy nationwide. In April, President Obama called for an end to these therapies for gay youth.
Sam Wolfe, an SPLC senior staff attorney, predicted that the group’s victory will make it easier for other states to bring down conversion therapists on consumer-fraud charges. He also hopes the attention generated through the trial will make more prospective conversion-therapy patients realize that these treatments, according to mainstream medical groups, are ineffective. “The defendants sold them modern-day snake oil,” he told me.
Steven Shiffrin, a retired Cornell Law professor who has followed conversion-therapy cases closely, said that in the past, conversion therapists have claimed their treatments are a matter of free speech under the First Amendment.
But “there is no First-Amendment right to engage in consumer fraud,” he told me. “The whole premise of consumer fraud is that adults need to be protected as well.”
Shiffrin predicted this case will doom a free-speech defense for conversion therapists in the future.
The ruling might also pave the way for further crackdowns on unlicensed therapists or life coaches, who are not regulated by state boards. Consumer-fraud laws apply regardless of licensing status. According to Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who helped write the American Psychological Association’s reports on conversion therapies, many conversion therapists are unlicensed.
“The movement tends to produce people who sought out this treatment for themselves, and then they make a living becoming professional ‘ex -gays for pay,’” he told me.
He says other states might try to enact consumer-fraud protections that can be applied to conversion therapies.
Another possibility is that more conversion therapists will be driven underground, or be forced to operate through churches and other religious institutions. In that case, the therapists could make a religious-freedom legal argument for their right to offer services.