Q&A: Bringing Dogs to Church

You must make sure you’re not subject to public accommodation provisions under state or local law.

A woman in our church has begun bringing her dog with her to worship services. She claims she has asthma, and the dog is able to alert her to oncoming asthma attacks. She insists on sitting in the middle of the sanctuary, which has distressed many of our members, some of whom are allergic to animals.
When I asked the woman if she would be willing to sit in the back row in order to resolve the concerns of her fellow parishioners, she became enraged and threatened to sue the church for violating her rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Is she right? Have we violated the ADA by asking that she and her dog sit in the back row of the church during worship services?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) has two main provisions:

(1) Employment discrimination. The ADA prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in any employment decision against a qualified individual with a disability who is able, with or without reasonable accommodation from the employer, to perform the essential functions of the job. This section of the ADA is not relevant to your question, since the woman with the dog is not an employee of the church.

(2) Public accommodations. Another section of the ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled persons by privately-owned places of public accommodation. The ADA defines the term public accommodation to include 12 types of facilities, including auditoriums or other places of public gathering, private schools (including nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, and postgraduate), and day care centers.

Disabled persons are permitted to sue an organization that owns or operates a place of public accommodation that engages in one or more of these discriminatory practices. However, the ADA specifies that its public accommodation provisions “shall not apply to … religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.” As a result, most types of religious organizations are excluded from the prohibition of discrimination in places of public accommodation. The House Report to the ADA specifies 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 specifies 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.”

It is important to note 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.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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