Service Animals: Help Your Ministry Respond Appropriately

Help your ministry respond safely and lawfully when someone asks to bring a service animal to church.

More and more people with disabilities are making their way to church on Sunday with the help of a service animal. Help your ministry respond safely, consistently, and lawfully when someone asks to bring a service animal to church.

What is a service animal?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that a service animal is any dog or miniature horse that is trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities, including any physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. A service animal may be trained to recognize and de-escalate agitation (e.g., PTSD), detect early warning signs of a neurological or metabolic episode (e.g., epilepsy, diabetes), assure safe guidance for the visually impaired, or perform simple tasks for people with impaired mobility, such as opening doors or retrieving objects.

Even a ministry that is under no legal obligation to admit service animals may choose to use a set of guidelines, such as the ADA, as a guideline for its own service animal policy.

A ministry is not required to comply with ADA standards in its treatment of service animals unless it receives public funding or hosts a publicly funded event. Note that state and local laws regarding service animals also can apply to your church. Even a ministry that is under no legal obligation to admit service animals may choose to use a set of guidelines, such as the ADA, as a guideline for its own service animal policy.

What measures should your church members take in terms of safety and sensitivity?

If your ministry is legally required to admit service animals, or decides to do so voluntarily, certain precautions should be taken. The first thing to keep in mind is that a service animal is not a pet; it has a job to do. The temptation to approach an adorable animal can be difficult for children and adults, alike. Nevertheless, making noises at a service animal, approaching it, petting it, and offering it food are all unacceptable, as these behaviors can distract the animal from its vital duties. Instead, instruct members of your church to ask the consent of the animal’s owner before approaching or interacting with it.

Consider debriefing your church members about the individual with a disability and their assistance animal, if you can do so without embarrassing the individual. If possible, you might provide information prior to the individual’s arrival.

Your staff and members are not responsible for providing an assistance animal with food, water, or a designated latrine area, outside. Feel free to offer these courtesies, but only with the owner’s consent.

If your ministry is required to comply with the ADA or chooses to follow it voluntarily, note that the ADA prohibits an organization from barring an assistance animal because members have allergies or fear the animal. It also states that organizations should take care not to unduly isolate an assistance animal owner, or restrict their movement within public spaces.

What are reasonable expectations for service animals?

If a service animal becomes disruptive or exhibits threatening behavior toward people, it is acceptable to ask the owner of the animal to either correct the problem or escort their animal from your facility. If the service animal relieves itself on your premises or does anything that destroys property, the same response is generally accepted. The owner may be asked to pay for damage caused by their service animal, but this and other logistics can be negotiated, case-by-case, with the individual, preferably before any incident occurs.

Create a service animal policy

Written policies are an important way to set clear expectations. Your policy should include the following:

  • Provide a definition of service animal. Presumably this will follow the ADA’s definition, or any state/local definitions.

  • State your ministry’s policy on admitting and accommodating members with service animals.
  • Lay out your ministry’s expectations for assistance animal behavior. Specify what you ask of assistance animal owners, as well.
  • Include a sensitivity section for staff and members. You might want to list the two acceptable questions that ADA permits regarding disabilities and assistance animals (see below).
  • If you are producing a handout version of your policy for members with assistance animals, also include the following:
  • Give instructions for approaching your staff with questions and assistance needs.
  • Offer directions to handicap accessible features in your building, in case applicable.
  • Specify if you want service animals to use certain designated outdoor latrine areas.

What will your staff do if someone seeks to enter your church with an animal that may or may not be a legitimate service animal?

If your ministry is legally required to comply with the ADA or chooses to do so voluntarily, note that the ADA permits only two questions which can be asked of individuals who have animals which they claim to be service animals.

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

If your staff has reason to doubt someone’s claim that their service animal is legitimate, your best response may be to observe the animal. If it damages church property, becomes disruptive, or appears to pose a threat to people, you can ask the animal’s owner to either correct the problem or escort the animal from your facility.

Some individuals use animals for emotional support. Cats are a common example. You will also want to determine how to address requests to bring these types of animals onto ministry property. Note that the ADA doesn’t require business owners to allow these animals on their premises.

Additional considerations

Welcoming a guest with a disability and their assistance animal into your building may be a great time to take stock of where your facility stands in terms of handicap accessibility. Consider evaluating the adequacy of your facility’s wheelchair features (ramps, elevators, seating) and handicap accessible restrooms as you consider the needs of a guest with a service animal.