What Do Crisis Pregnancy Centers and Gay Conversion Therapy Have in Common?

In the first of its kind lawsuit, the SPLC calls gay conversion therapy a fraud. Meanwhile lawmakers try to protect crisis pregnancy centers from regulation under consumer protection laws. Are we on to something here?

photo courtesy of Savio Sebastian via Flickr

“Pray away the gay” conversion therapy is a fraud and its perpetrators swindlers who should be held liable under state consumer protection statutes.

So says the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in the first-of-its kind lawsuit against a religious organization that promotes the dangerous practice. According to the SPLC, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) fraudulently claims to provide services that “convert” people from gay to straight. Previously known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, the group was founded by Arthur Goldberg, a former Wall Street executive and attorney who was convicted of mail fraud and ultimately disbarred. The lawsuit, filed in state court in New Jersey, alleges that JONAH, its founder Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by claiming that their counseling services could cure clients of being gay.

According to the lawsuit, JONAH customers typically pay a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling lessons and another $60 for group therapy sessions. In those therapy sessions counselors would force clients to strip naked in the group, encouraged clients to blame their parents for being gay and have them participate in violent role play exercises where they would beat effigies of their mothers. These services cost clients as much as $10,000 per year, exclusive of any fees associated with the professional treatment needed to recover from the abuse under JONAH’s care. The stories are tragic and infuriating.

The complaint, nearly thirty pages long, provides what amounts to an in-depth annotated bibliography of the medical evidence to refute “conversion therapy” as anywhere near legitimate, and pain-stakenly details how the defendants made thousands of dollars subjecting individuals to mental and physical abuse, in the name of prayer and spiritual study, and based on promises it would “cure” their homosexuality.

Of course faulty therapies grounded in religious doctrine and used to turn a profit are the very business model of a crisis pregnancy center and it seems little can be done about it. Recent attempts to regulate CPCs by forcing them to disclosure their positions on contraception and abortion have run into First Amendment problems. Is it time to start exploring consumer fraud claims against these organizations?

Consumer fraud claims avoid the constitutional problems inherent in trying to regulate the content of commercial speech and instead provide remedies when the content of that commercial speech doesn’t live up to what is promised. In the context of CPC’s those promises would include claims of unbiased, professional medical opinions and advice relevant to the decision to terminate a pregnancy, for example. Given the fact that more and more women are being forced via informed consent laws to visit CPCs in the course of trying to access abortion care, a real need exists to effectively guard against fraud in these settings. So much so that in some states anti-choice activists are trying to forbid municipalities from regulating advertising and advice given out by CPCs, effectively shielding these organizations from claims like the ones made against JONAH. That suggest they recognize a vulnerability.

Admittedly it is an imperfect analogy, comparing conversion therapy fraud claims to similar potential claims against crisis pregnancy centers. And plenty of procedural barriers exist to make bringing such lawsuits challenging if not impossible in some instances. But if religious organizations via their for-profit enterprises are going to insist on a First Amendment right to proselytize while delivering commercial services, then as consumers we’re entitled to some way to hold those promises accountable.