The June 25, 2015 verdict in Ferguson, et al. v. JONAH garnered less media attention in the past week than the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling striking down the remaining 13 state-wide bans on marriage for gay and lesbian couples, but both were extremely significant for gay, lesbian and bi individuals and families in the United States.
The JONAH case was a consumer fraud suit by five individuals — one of whom is Michael Ferguson who is gay with a Mormon background and familiar to many in the Affirmation community — against an organization providing services to gay and lesbian individuals claiming to be able to convert them to heterosexuals. Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center and also a member of the Affirmation community, served with the legal team representing the plaintiffs. Other witnesses who are Mormon testified in the case, including leaders of North Star and the director of People Can Change. This is the first time a suit of this nature has succeeded, and it strikes a serious blow to JONAH and to other similar programs claiming to help homosexuals change their sexual orientation.
The Supreme Court ruling agreed that gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry. In the words of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, marriage is a “keystone of the American social order” and banning marriage for gay and lesbian couples was an “injustice” that denied them (and their children) much needed “recognition, stability and predictability” and “equal dignity under the law.” Though these two separate cases seemed to address very different legal issues, both hinged on the core question of whether or not homosexuality is a normal human variation and whether gay and lesbian people and relationships are due a recognized place in our societies and families.
The JONAH case may continue to be fought in higher courts, since the defendants (“Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing”) vowed to appeal the verdict, which requires them to pay the plaintiffs $72,400 in compensation and damages, plus plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. The Supreme Court decision definitively settles the question of whether gay and lesbian couples can legally marry anywhere in the United States, though some opponents have vowed to renew a campaign for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Opponents of the outcomes of both of these cases expressed very similar fears and concerns. They expressed fear that individuals and organizations adhering to certain religious views of homosexuality would be increasingly marginalized, potentially becoming the targets of bigotry, and would be hindered in their religious practice or in their freedom of speech. Both emphasized that they are defending sexual morality and “core values” without which American society will not thrive. Opponents of same-sex marriage and some supporters of “reparative therapy” and similar practices insist that homosexuality is a disorder that should not be granted official recognition or status in American society and that should be cured if possible and controlled if not. JONAH’s defense that they should not be liable under the consumer protection law because their practice was rooted in a religious view that homosexuality is “religiously disordered” failed because they marketed most aspects of their practice as non-religious, misrepresented that their program was based in science, and did not specify in marketing their conversion therapy that they were only taking about a “disorder” from a religious perspective.
As a consumer protection case, the JONAH ruling relates to conversion therapy practitioners who make misrepresentations about their services offered for sale. Yet the failure of defendants to prove that their program could change sexual orientation and that their representations including with respect to claimed success rates and average time to change sexual orientation constituted consumer fraud undermines claims of sexual orientation change generally.
In both cases, the plaintiffs’ stories played a powerful role in overcoming opposing arguments. Real life stories of the impact that denial of marriage has on gay and lesbian couples and on the children raised by those couples prompted key Supreme Court justices to question widespread assumptions underlying the idea that marriage should be reserved only for a man and a woman.
Plaintiffs in the JONAH case presented vivid and heart-breaking first-hand testimony of the damage done by certain kinds of sexual orientation counseling and practices. Their testimony exposes to heightened public scrutiny practices of groups like JONAH and People Can Change, which runs JIM (“Journey into Manhood”) that include things like being asked to stand in a circle with other men and undress together, standing naked in front of a male counselor and touching one’s genitals while he watched, being encouraged to practice “healthy touch” with other men including having male counselors engage in prolonged cuddling sessions with them; reenacting traumatic childhood experiences, and engaging in violent role-playing exercises such as beating effigies of their parents (who are blamed for their sexual orientation). JONAH told clients they had a two-thirds success rate in changing men’s sexual orientation from gay to straight — a claim that was shown to have no foundation. The effects of the therapy included alienation from families, whom the men were encouraged to see as responsible for their homosexuality, and a diminished self-image based on characterizations of homosexuality as a disorder. Expert witness Lee Becksted, a Utah-based therapist who has done a lot of work with gay Mormons, confirmed that the practices used in the ministries identified in the trial did not constitute legitimate therapy. The jury concluded that JONAH’s program, which includes People Can Change as a featured component, constitutes unconscionable business practices in violation of New Jersey’s consumer protection law.
The personal, real-life stories of gay and lesbian individuals who have come out to family, friends, co-workers and neighbors in the decades since Stonewall have been instrumental in shifting the tide of public opinion on this issue, making it unlikely that renewed efforts to roll back same-sex marriage through a constitutional amendment will succeed any time in the foreseeable future. For a growing majority of Americans, support for same-sex marriage and revulsion from the kinds of extreme practices that have been justified in the name of “curing” or eradicating homosexuality are, far from an abandonment of morality or “core values,” seen as consistent with Americans’ highest values: listening to and treating others as we ourselves would like to be listened to and treated; forging, maintaining and strengthening family; and respecting individual agency while valuing community.
Regardless of where one stands on the core question of whether homosexuality is part of the normal spectrum of diversity in God’s creation, or a flaw or a sin that should be fixed or resisted, these values of empathy, family, agency and community are the values that will allow everyone to move forward in a faithful, compassionate way. The court rulings and laws recognizing same-sex marriage and regulating or limiting conversion therapy practitioners, are welcome news to the majority of openly gay, lesbian and bi individuals and their families and friends, because they grant much needed rights and protections, and empower us to live our lives without fear and in accordance with our conscience.
Affirmation Vice President, Kathy Carlston share the following on the date of the Supreme Court ruling: “Today I am grateful that my little family, my wife and I, are able to have the same recognition and responsibilities extended to all other married couples. My heart is rejoicing. Our sacred union, our walk together has never depended on external sources of approval save for our relationship with God, but there is something enobling about being accorded the same opportunities and protections as any other family. For those who struggle to feel happy about the Supreme Court’s decision today, know that we love and respect you, and that we hope you will never be treated with unkindness for your beliefs. We’ll walk with you.”
As Fred Bowers, a member of the Affirmation Board put it, “There are no words that can express the joy that I feel at this moment! … I honor [my ancestors’] sacrifices and what they had to ‘rise above’ in order for me to arrive into the world. To my 2nd great grandparents, I try every day to do justice to the great legacy of courage and the love for freedom that you left for me and I promise I will ‘keep rising’ until the end.“
Randall Thacker, Affirmation President, said, “I rejoice with my fellow LGBTQ Mormons, their families and friends in the United States who are celebrating the recent court decisions. These rulings give tremendous hope to future generations and affirm that we are whole and complete children of God as we are and that our committed relationships contribute to creating a stable society. Our interactions with those who oppose these outcomes in the weeks and months ahead may not be easy. In fact, they may be excruciatingly difficult. Do not be dismayed! Move forward in your lives with fortitude and strength, engage opponents with kindness, and have faith “that all things work together for good that love God.” (Romans 8:28) Reach to God to strengthen and comfort you, knowing that our Divine Creator’s love is bigger than any other.”
It is likely that members of the Affirmation community will be dealing with varying degrees of conflict among family and friends over these issues. The language we use to talk about these issues, and the way we treat those who disagree with us in the days and weeks ahead may play a big role in determining whether we alleviate or exacerbate fears of intolerance or decay of values.
Join Affirmation for a virtual support meeting on Tuesday, July 7 at 7 p.m. MT to support LGBTQ Mormons, Families & Friends as we navigate some of the difficult messages from family members, church leaders, and friends in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Questions will be taken from participants and a panel of individuals will listen and provide their ideas, suggestions, and support. Instructions on how to attend will be provided prior to the call on our website and in our Facebook groups. Save the date now and share with others who you believe could benefit from the call.