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 dogs or emotional support animals at your ministry facility.

Service animals—such as guide dogs for the blind—perform vital tasks for people with disabilities. Emotional support animals, also known as companion or comfort animals, offer assistance in other ways. Consider drafting a policy that maintains safety while welcoming service dogs or support animals. Following a written policy can help ensure that the ministry responds lawfully and consistently when someone asks to bring a service or support animal to church. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires places of public accommodation to allow service animals on their property, but ministries are not generally subject to these requirements. Even so, the ADA’s requirements can offer some guidance about permitting service or emotional support animals on ministry property.

For example, a written policy might address:

  • How the ministry defines “service animal.” The 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. Ministries generally are exempt from the ADA’s requirement that service animals be allowed to go everywhere in the facility that the general public is allowed to go. Ministries may choose to make some or all parts of their building off-limits to animals.
  • Whether emotional support animals will be allowed on the property.
  • Behavior expectations for animals and the consequences for improper behavior. Generally, the ADA provides that if an animal damages property or shows signs of being dangerous, the owner may be asked to either rectify the behavior or remove the animal from the premises.

This sample policy for service and support animals, developed by Brotherhood Mutual, can help you get started. 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

With service and emotional support animals becoming more common, it’s a good idea to share some general guidance with greeters, ushers, and others who interact with the public. For example, if a ministry decides to permit service animals but not emotional support animals, it would be helpful for staff and volunteers to know they may politely ask 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?

These are the two questions the ADA allows people to ask when deciding whether to admit a service animal into a building normally off-limits to animals.

Recommended Resources

For more information on how the ADA addresses service animals, see the ADA’s requirements or its answers to frequently asked questions. You may also be interested in reading this article about service and emotional support animals at church.

Updated January 14, 2020

*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.