A New Jersey judge has ruled that describing homosexuality as a mental disorder in selling conversion therapy services violates the state's consumer-fraud protection laws.
The ruling is the first time a judge in the United States has found that as a matter of law, homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexuality and not a disease or disorder, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights group whose lawsuit spurred the judge's order.
"It's a tremendous moment in American law," said David Dinielli, the center's deputy legal counsel.
"It is a warning sign that anyone who is selling services based on the discredited lie" that homosexuality is a disorder "may be committing consumer fraud and ought to be careful about what they do," he said.
The center alleges that New Jersey-based Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) lured clients with the claim that homosexuality is a disease it could cure through therapy.
The American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, and the American Psychological Association says conversion therapy can cause depression and suicidal thoughts.
JONAH's attorney did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
But lawyer Charles LiMandri told the Associated Press that the group used disorder in the context of Jewish law, and was not speaking of homosexuality as a psychological disorder.
"They're not your typical target of Consumer Fraud Act defendants who are making misrepresentations of people," LiMandri said. "They're just trying to help people who are in distress get help if they want it. If they don't want it, that's fine."
The suit, filed in 2012 on behalf of former JONAH clients and two parents of former clients, seeks restitution for the plaintiffs, revocation of the group's business license, and an order enjoining the group from violating the Consumer Fraud Act.
The trial is scheduled to begin June 1.
New Jersey enacted a law in 2013 banning licensed counselors from providing gay conversion therapy to minors. That has not stopped JONAH from operating, because its therapists are not licensed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Peter F. Barsio Jr. in Jersey City granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs, barring JONAH from claiming that homosexuality is a mental disorder or disease.
Barsio also ruled that including "success" statistics in advertising or selling gay conversion therapy violated the Consumer Fraud Act.
He did not say JONAH had made such claims. But the Southern Poverty Law Center said it intended to introduce evidence at trial indicating that the conversion therapy group defrauded clients by advertising its services with discredited theories.
The services can cost more than $10,000 a year, the suit alleges.
Barsio left open the possibility that JONAH could argue that it represented homosexuality "not as a mental disorder, but as 'disordered' and prohibited by its religion."