Responding to a churchgoer who wants to bring a service or support animal to church may not be a new challenge.
One of the earliest references to service dogs is a fresco in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, which depicts a blind man being assisted across a busy street by a guide dog. Since this fresco dates back to the late first century A.D. in a city not far from Rome and its fledgling Christian church, it is not unreasonable to assume that the church encountered the occasional presence of a service animal and its disabled owner.
How church leaders in the first century handled the issue is unknown. It is not addressed in the New Testament. But there are several points that may be helpful to modern church leaders in responding to this issue.
Background: Discrimination is prohibited in places of public accommodation
To determine whether a church has a legal duty to accommodate individuals with service animals, we must first evaluate Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It prohibits discrimination based on disability by places of public accommodation.
Organizations that provide goods or services to the public are called “public accommodations” in the ADA, but only if they fall under one or more of 12 categories of facilities identified by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in its ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual . Most of these are business establishments, including stores, restaurants, service establishments, theaters, hotels, recreational facilities, private museums, and schools.
The 12 categories are an exhaustive list. A facility cannot be considered a place of public accommodation if it does not fall under one of these 12 categories.
Note that churches are not on the list of categories. The ADA explicitly affirms this exemption by specifying that the public accommodations provisions “shall not apply to . . . religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.”
Accordingly, most types of religious organizations are excluded from the prohibition of discrimination in places of public accommodation. The House Report detailing congressional committee discussions prior to the law’s passage notes that “places of worship and schools controlled by religious organizations are among those organizations and entities which fall within this exemption.”
The House Report further states that “activities conducted by a religious organization or an entity controlled by a religious organization on its own property, which are open to nonmembers of that organization or entity are included in this exemption.”
The DOJ further provides in its ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual:
III-1.5000 Religious entities. Religious entities are exempt from the requirements of Title III of the ADA. A religious entity, however, would be subject to the employment obligations of Title I if it has enough employees to meet the requirements for coverage.
III-1.5100 Definition. A religious entity is a religious organization or an entity controlled by a religious organization, including a place of worship.
If an organization has a lay board, is it automatically ineligible for the religious exemption? No. The exemption is intended to have broad application. For example, a parochial school that teaches religious doctrine and is sponsored by a religious order could be exempt, even if it has a lay board.
III-1.5200 Scope of exemption. The exemption covers all of the activities of a religious entity, whether religious or secular.
ILLUSTRATION: A religious congregation operates a daycare center and a private elementary school for [the congregation’s] members and nonmembers alike. Even though the congregation is operating facilities that would otherwise be places of public accommodation, its operations are exempt from Title III requirements.
What if the congregation rents to a private day care center or elementary school? Is the tenant organization also exempt? The private entity that rents the congregation’s facilities to operate a place of public accommodation is not exempt, unless it is also a religious entity. If it is not a religious entity, then its activities would be covered by Title III. The congregation, however, would remain exempt, even if its tenant is covered. That is, the obligations of a landlord for a place of public accommodation do not apply if the landlord is a religious entity.
If a nonreligious entity operates a community theater or other place of public accommodation in donated space on the congregation’s premises, is the nonreligious entity covered by Title III? No. A nonreligious entity running a place of public accommodation in space donated by a religious entity is exempt from Title III’s requirements. The nonreligious tenant entity is subject to Title III only if a lease exists under which rent or other consideration is paid.
Note that while schools and daycare centers are both on the list of 12 categories subject to the ADA, they are exempt if “controlled by a religious organization.”
Example. A church operates a school and preschool as ministries of the church. Both the school and preschool are subject to the church’s control. The church’s governing board serves as the board for the school and preschool, and it exercises plenary control over all their activities, including personnel, finances, and curriculum. The school and preschool operate under the church’s corporate and tax-exempt status.
The school and preschool are “controlled by a religious organization,” and therefore are exempt from the ban on discrimination by places of public accommodation. Among other things, this means that the school and preschool are not required to allow service dogs.
Example. For many years, a church has operated a private school. Recently, church leaders decided to separately incorporate the school to insulate the church from the school’s liabilities. The school selects its own board and operates independently of church control. The school no longer is “controlled by a religious organization” and therefore is subject to the ADA’s public accommodations provisions.
Note. While religious organizations are not subject to the ADA’s public accommodation provisions, they may be subject to similar provisions under state or local law.
Applying the ADA requirements to service animals
The ADA requires covered entities that provide goods or services to the public to make “reasonable modifications” in their policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to accommodate people with disabilities. This requirement applies to service animals. As noted above, religious organizations are exempt from Title III of the ADA, and so they are not subject to any requirement under Title III of the ADA pertaining to service animals.
Whether or not a church is required to allow service animals in church services or at church-sponsored activities, leaders should still have a basic understanding so they can make both informed and compassionate decisions.
What is a service animal?
Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional program.
The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.
For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.
What about animals providing “emotional support?”
A fairly common misunderstanding is that a pet that provides comfort can be considered a service animal. The DOJ disagrees, stating:
Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
Emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals are not considered service animals under the ADA. These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals.
Note. Although emotional support animals do not fall under the federal ADA, some state or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. Check with your state and local government agencies to find out about these laws.
How to determine if a dog is a service animal
In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, church staff may ask only two specific questions:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Caution. Churches are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
Note. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.
When can service animals be excluded?
The DOJ was asked: “Are churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship required to allow individuals to bring their service animals into the facility?” Its response: “No. Religious institutions and organizations are specifically exempt from the ADA. However, there may be state laws that apply to religious organizations.”
Here’s something to keep in mind: If admitting service animals would fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program, service animals may be prohibited under the federal ADA.
Further, if a service animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or if it is not housebroken, the church may request that the animal be removed from the premises.
The ADA requires that service animals be always under the control of the handler. In most instances, the handler will be the individual with a disability or a third party who accompanies the individual with a disability.
The service animal must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered while in public places unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the person’s disability prevents use of these devices. In that case, the person must use voice, signal, or other effective means to maintain control of the animal.
For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may use a long, retractable leash to allow her service animal to pick up or retrieve items. She may not allow the dog to wander away from her and must maintain control of the dog, even if it is retrieving an item at a distance from her.
Under control also means that a service animal should not be allowed to bark repeatedly in a lecture hall, theater, library, or any other quiet place. However, if a dog barks just once, or barks because someone has provoked it, this would not mean that the dog is out of control.
To help guide your church’s decision-making regarding a service animal’s presence, consider the following examples.
Example. A church’s volunteer worship leader recently began bringing his pet dog to church as a support or comfort animal. Several members who find the presence of the dog a distraction complain to the pastor. Can the pastor ask the volunteer to discontinue bringing his dog? Yes, for two reasons.
First, Title III of the ADA specifies that the public accommodations provisions “shall not apply to . . . religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.”
Second, the volunteer’s dog is not a “service animal” protected by the ADA unless it has been trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.
Example. A church member begins bringing her large dog to church services. The dog sits up on the pew next to the owner. Several members find the presence of the dog a distraction and complain to the pastor. Can the pastor ask the member to discontinue bringing her dog? Yes. See the analysis in the previous example.
Example. A church member begins bringing his miniature horse to church with him in order to provide comfort. The horse sits up on the pew next to the owner. Can the church ask the member to discontinue bringing his horse? Yes. See the analysis in the previous example.
Also, see the “Miniature Horses” section in the ADA revised requirements for service animals.
Example. A church places a “no pets” sign at all of its entrances. Since religious organizations are not subject to the ADA’s public accommodation provisions, the sign is permissible. Note, however, that the church may be subject to similar provisions under state or local law.
Example. A church with 10 employees has an employee who suffers from anxiety. This employee has asked for permission to bring a service animal to work with her. This question implicates the ban on employment discrimination based on disability under Title I of the ADA. Employment discrimination under the ADA is addressed below.
Caution. It is important to remember that while religious organizations are not subject to the ADA’s public accommodation provisions, they may be subject to similar provisions under state or local law. More details below.
Churches may need to comply with state and local laws
While religious organizations are not subject to the ADA’s provisions regarding public accommodations, including service animals, they must still carefully evaluate whether they are subject to similar provisions mandated under state or local laws—and, if such laws exist, whether they provide any religious exemptions under them.
It is highly recommended church leaders consult with a local attorney with expertise in the ADA, local and state public state public accommodations laws, and religious organizations.
Can church employees bring service animals to work?
The ADA specifically permits religious organizations (including religious educational institutions) to “give preference in employment to individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by organization of its activities.”
The ADA further provides that “a religious organization may require that all applicants and employees conform to the religious tenets of such organization.” 29 CFR 1630.16(a).
Note that Title I’s religious exemption is narrower than Title III’s blanket exemption of “religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.”
Title I of the ADA prohibits private employers (among other entities) from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees.
An individual with a disability is a person who:
- Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- Has a record of such an impairment; or
- Is regarded as having such an impairment.
A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. Reasonable accommodation may include, but is not limited to:
- Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities
- Job restructuring, modifying work schedules, reassigning to a vacant position
- Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices, adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies, and providing qualified readers or interpreters
An employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee if it would not impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business. Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications provided by an employer to enable people with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities.
Accommodations vary depending upon the needs of the individual applicant or employee. Not all people with disabilities (or even all people with the same disability) will require the same accommodation.
Service animals may be considered “reasonable accommodation”
The DOJ has stated that service animals may be a reasonable accommodation of some employee disabilities. (See this FAQ.)
If an employer and employee agree that a service animal is a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s disability, employers can implement reasonable limitations to protect its property, and to protect other employees from distractions, attacks and injuries, odors, and allergic reactions.
An employer is not required to lower its quality or production standards to make an accommodation, nor is an employer obligated to provide personal use items, such as glasses or hearing aids.
An employer generally does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation unless an individual with a disability has asked for one. If an employer believes that a medical condition is causing a performance or conduct problem, it may ask the employee how to solve the problem and if the employee needs a reasonable accommodation.
Unlike Title III, there is no requirement in Title I (see below) that an employer grant the request of an employee for a service animal. Instead, such a request triggers an “interactive process” involving the discussion of the employee’s needs and possible accommodations that will not impose an undue hardship on the employer.
Note. Where more than one accommodation would work, the employer may choose the one that is less costly or that is easier to provide.
Note. Employers must recognize that they now have an affirmative duty to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is a job applicant or employee, unless they can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of their business.
Determining if Title I of the ADA applies
When does—and doesn’t—Title I of the ADA apply to a church and its employees? Consider these examples.
Example. A church with 10 employees has an employee with a disability. This employee has asked for permission to bring a service animal to work with her in order to manage her symptoms.
This question implicates the ban on employment discrimination based on disability under Title I of the ADA. However, Title I only applies to employers having 15 or more employees, and so it does not apply to the church in this example.
Most states, however, have enacted legislation banning discrimination in employment based on disability, and many of these laws apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees.
Example. A church with 20 employees has an employee with a disability. This employee has asked for permission to bring a service animal to work with her to manage her symptoms. This question implicates the ban on employment discrimination based on disability under Title I of the ADA.
Title I applies to employers having 15 or more employees, and so it applies to the church in this example. The employee’s request for accommodation triggers an “interactive process” in which the employee and church informally discuss what accommodations the church could adopt (including allowing the employee to bring a service animal to work) that would render her capable of performing the essential functions of her job without undue hardship to her employer.
Example. A church with 20 employees terminates its pastor, who became disabled in recent years.
The pastor sues a church, claiming that his termination constituted discrimination based on disability since the church refused to provide reasonable accommodations to enable him to perform the essential functions of his job. One of the specific accommodations the pastor requested was a Seeing Eye dog. The court declined to offer this accommodation based on the “ministerial exception.”
In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012), the United States Supreme Court unanimously recognized the so-called “ministerial exception” barring civil court review of employment disputes between churches and ministers. The case involved a claim by a “called” teacher at a church-related school in Michigan that the school committed unlawful disability discrimination in terminating her employment. This case effectively bars claims of disability discrimination by ministers against their employing church.
Seek legal assistance
Church leaders should seek legal counsel when responding to requests by employees, job applicants, church members, and visitors regarding service dogs on church premises.