By: Marnie Leonard

Published On: May 16, 2024

Conversion therapy is a widely discredited practice that aims to “cure” LGBTQ+ individuals of their identities by “converting” them to heterosexual/cisgender.[1]  Conversion therapy techniques often concentrate on creating an aversion to the patient’s LGBTQ+ identity. For example, one method aims to induce nausea or paralysis responses to homoerotic images.[2]  Non-aversive strategies include assertiveness training for men, teaching and reinforcing strict gender norms, and hypnotizing patients to attempt to change their sexual desires.[3]

Despite the available scientific literature showing that conversion therapy is ineffective and harmful,[4] it is still legal in 21 states and four territories,[5] and $650 million is spent on conversion therapy annually in the United States.[6]  In 2022, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that requested federal agencies to ensure that federally funded programs do not offer conversion therapy.[7]  But there is no federal law regarding the legality of conversion therapy, and circuit courts are split on the constitutionality of banning it.[8]  Additionally, even states that have banned conversion therapy can only prevent licensed providers from offering it, and most conversion therapy today is offered by unlicensed, religious providers.[9] ​​Any ban that targeted unlicensed conversion therapy providers may be seen as implicitly targeting religious groups[10] and would likely be vigorously challenged.[11]  This barrier to banning conversion therapy by unlicensed providers has left tens of vulnerable to the trauma of conversion therapy.[12]

But there may be another way to reach these unlicensed, religious providers of conversion therapy: increased consumer fraud protections.[13]  Conversion therapy providers inherently make fraudulent claims when they say they can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  States should look to New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act as a model statute,[14] and its effectiveness can be seen in Ferguson v. JONAH.[15]  Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (“JONAH”) offered a conversion therapy plan that included forcing clients to “remove their clothing and stand in a circle naked” and instructing a client to “beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket while screaming.”[16]  The plaintiffs argued that JONAH peddled harmful, “discredited pseudo-scientific treatments,”[17] and they sued under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, which prohibits “any unconscionable commercial practice, deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, [or] misrepresentation . . . in connection with the sale or advertisement of any merchandise.”[18]  The statute defines merchandise as any service or anything offered to the public for sale, [19] which includes conversion therapy.  The jury agreed with the plaintiffs and found that JONAH had violated the Consumer Fraud Act when it claimed it could change sexual orientation.[20]

New Jersey’s consumer fraud statute is especially favorable to plaintiffs suing over harm resulting from conversion therapy because it provides individual rights of action for consumer fraud, defines merchandise broadly, does not require a showing of the defendant’s intent or knowledge, and it permits equitable relief and attorney’s fees.[21]  It is particularly important that state consumer fraud statutes do not require the defendant’s intent or knowledge when it comes to conversion therapy because that prevents defendants in these cases from being able to rely on a genuine religious belief to avoid liability for fraud.[22]  Strengthening state consumer fraud statutes by modeling them after New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act may be the best way to prevent religious providers from making these fraudulent claims and to provide victims of conversion therapy with a remedy.

[1] See, e.g., Summary of Findings: A Review of Scientific Evidence of Conversion Therapy, Minn. Dept. of

Health (Apr. 11, 2022), (noting that individuals who have experienced conversion therapy have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation).

[2] Sam Brinton, I Was Tortured in Gay Conversion Therapy. And It’s Still Legal in 41 States, N.Y. TIMES (Jan. 24, 2018),

[3] Tiffany Graham, Conversion Therapy: A Brief Reflection on the History of the Practice and Contemporary Regulatory Efforts, 52 Creighton L. Rev. 419, 422 (2018) (explaining that the perceived need for assertiveness training came from the belief that gay sons were the product of “weak fathers and dominant mothers”).

[4] See id. at 11.

[5] See LGBT Policy Spotlight: Conversion Therapy Bans, LGBT Map (July 2017), See also Conversion “Therapy” Laws, LGBT Map, 

[6] Trevor Hunnicutt, Biden targets conversion therapy, transgender bans in Pride Month order, Reuters (June 15, 2022),

[7] Id.

[8] Taylor Chervo, Can States Constitutionally Ban Conversion Therapy?, Sunday Splits (Oct. 20, 2022), (discussing a 2014 and 2019 case in the Ninth Circuit in which bans on conversion therapy were upheld, and a 2022 Eleventh Circuit case in which a conversion therapy ban was struck down as an unconstitutional violation of free speech).

[9] John J. Lapin, The Legal Status of Conversion Therapy, 22 Geo. J. Gender & L. 251, 269 (discussing that states are limited in their ability to regulate conversion therapy offered by unlicensed, religious providers).

[10] See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 531 (1993) (invalidating a city’s ban on ritual animal sacrifice because there was only one religious group in the city that practiced it, so the ban was implicitly targeting the religious group and therefore unconstitutional).

[11]See Lapin, supra note 5, at 266.

[12] See Lapin, supra note 5, at 269.

[13] Peter R. Dubrowski, The Ferguson v. JONAH Verdict and a Path to National Cessation of Gay-to-Straight “Conversion Therapy,” 110 NW. U. L. Rev. Online 77, 91 (2015).

[14] See generally N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8 (2015).

[15] See Ferguson v. JONAH, 136 A.3d 447 (N.J. Super. Ct. 2014).

[16] Id. at 450.

[17] Id.

[18] N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8-2 (2015).

[19] Id. § 56:8-1(c).

[20] Ferguson, 136 A.3d at 454-55.

[21] See Dubrowski, supra note 9.

[22] See Dubrow, supra note 9, at 91.

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