Q: One of our church attendees uses a service animal and would like to bring it to church. How should we respond?

A: Consider creating a policy that addresses the use of service animals at your ministry facility.

Service animals—such as guide dogs for the blind—perform vital tasks for people with disabilities. Consider drafting a policy that maintains safety while welcoming these helpers. Following a written policy can help ensure that the ministry responds lawfully and consistently when someone asks to bring a service animal to church.

For example, a written policy might address:

  • How the ministry defines “service animal.” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) governs the use of service animals at the federal level. It defines service animals as dogs—and, in some cases, miniature horses—that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
  • Which sections of the building animals are allowed to enter. Under the ADA, service animals must be allowed to go everywhere in the facility that the general public is allowed to go.
  • Behavior expectations for service animals and the consequences for improper behavior. The ADA requires service animals to be housebroken. Generally, if the animal shows signs of being dangerous, it’s acceptable to ask the owner to either rectify the behavior or remove the animal from the premises.

Most ministries are exempt from complying with the ADA, but state and local laws still may apply. A local attorney can help ensure that the ministry’s policy complies with all applicable laws.

Other Considerations

Ministry personnel must understand and be considerate of the rights of others. For example, when it is not obvious what service an animal provides, the ADA allows personnel to ask only two questions of the animal’s owner:

  1. Is the service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

Under the ADA, personnel cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require training documentation for the animal, or ask that the animal demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. It’s a good idea to address this—and general service animal etiquette—with greeters, ushers, and others who interact with attendees.

Recommended Resources

For more information on how the ADA addresses service animals, see the ADA’s revised requirements from 2011.

*Important information: Brotherhood Mutual is pleased to provide Legal Assist as a complimentary resource. The services we offer through Legal Assist are intended to provide general legal information to our current and prospective policyholders.

The information we provide is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. Accordingly, no attorney/client relationship is created through this process, and no legal advice will be provided. We strongly encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.