Service and Support Animals: Help Your Ministry Respond Appropriately

A policy can provide guidance when someone wants to bring a service dog or emotional support animal to church

Increasingly, people with anxiety and other conditions are turning to emotional support animals for comfort and relief.  Since these animals require no formal training, the law treats them very differently than service dogs. Understanding the difference between service and emotional support animals can help your organization respond fairly, consistently, and lawfully when someone asks to bring an animal to church or ministry activities.

Must service animals be allowed at church or ministry events?

Generally, no. Churches and ministries are exempt from Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so these organizations are not required to admit people with service animals. Service dog owners must seek permission to enter from the organization’s leaders, who may grant or deny the request. Please note: Differing state or local laws regarding service animals may apply to churches and ministry organizations. It’s a good idea to consult a locally licensed attorney about your ministry’s legal duties.

Must emotional support animals be allowed at church or ministry events?

Emotional support animals don’t qualify as service animals under the ADA. Neither churches nor ministries are required to admit them. Some state or local governments have laws allowing people to take emotional support animals into public places. These laws may apply to churches or ministries.

What is a service animal?

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as any dog that is trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. Once trained primarily to guide people who are blind, service dogs now help people overcome a wide range of physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, and mental challenges. The ADA also recognizes miniature horses as service animals.

A service animal may be trained to:

  • Recognize and de-escalate agitation in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Detect early warning signs of an epileptic seizure.
  • Alert a person with diabetes to low or high blood sugar levels.
  • Perform simple tasks for people with impaired mobility, such as opening doors or retrieving objects.

What is an emotional support animal?

Emotional support animals can also be called assistance, comfort, or companion animals. They are not trained to perform any specific duties and may not be trained at all. Dogs, cats, ferrets, birds, and a variety of other species can serve as emotional support animals. Some federal and state laws require accommodations for people with emotional support animals under certain conditions, such as during commercial flights. Emotional support animals do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

How should we respond to requests about service or support animals?

It’s important to consider how your organization will respond to accommodation requests, even if you’re not legally required to admit either service or emotional support animals. Here are some questions for your leadership team to consider:

  • Will we allow service animals?
  • Will we allow emotional support animals? (If so, what kind and of what size?)
  • In which areas of our building will we allow service or support animals?
  • What are our behavioral expectations for service or support animals?
  • How will we respond to concerns from people who have allergies or fear animals?

Create a policy on service and support animals

Developing written policies are an important way to set clear expectations. You can use a set of guidelines to get started, such as the ADA or this sample Service and Support Animal Policy. Your policy should do the following:

  • Define both “service” and “emotional support” animals. Presumably, the wording would follow definitions set by local, state, or federal disability laws.
  • State your organization’s policy on admitting and accommodating people with service or support animals.
  • Explain behavior expectations for animals and their handlers.
  • Include a sensitivity section for staff and members.

If you are producing a handout version of your policy for people with service or support animals, you could also:

  • Give instructions for approaching your staff with questions and assistance needs.
  • Offer directions to handicap-accessible features in your building, if applicable.
  • Specify if you want assistance animals to take bathroom breaks in certain outdoor areas.

What if someone asks to bring in a service animal that appears to be an emotional support animal?

If your ministry decides to admit only service dogs, and your staff or volunteers suspect a person is bringing in a pet, 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.

Remember that emotional support animals aren’t granted general access to public places like service animals are. More than 25 states have made it a crime for people to falsely claim that they have the right to be accompanied by a service animal. 

What measures should our church or ministry take, in terms of safety and sensitivity?

It’s important to note that the ADA doesn’t allow organizations governed by its rules to bar a trained service dog because participants fear dogs or have allergies to them. Organizations may take other precautions to address those concerns but should avoid unduly isolating a service animal owner or restricting the person’s movement within public spaces. This guide to the ADA answers dozens of questions people commonly ask about accommodating service animals. It may also help you consider how to assist people who have emotional support animals, if you choose to allow them.

What are reasonable expectations for service and support animals?

If a service or support animal becomes disruptive or exhibits threatening behavior toward people, it is acceptable to ask the animal’s handler to either correct the problem or escort the animal from your facility. If the 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 the animal, but this and other logistics can be addressed, case by case. Ideally, your organization’s policy would outline these expectations before any incident occurs.

Additional considerations

If you will be welcoming service or support animals into your building, it's important to assess how well your building is equipped to serve people with various disabilities. Evaluate how easily a person could navigate your building with the help of a wheelchair, walker, or service dog. Examine such features as ramps, elevators, seating, and restrooms as you conduct your evaluation. Finally, consider the emotional and spiritual needs of a guest with a service or support animal and determine whether any additional ministry support would be beneficial.

If you have questions, contact your ministry attorney for guidance. You can also reach out to our free Legal Assist service for additional risk management information.

Updated January 14, 2020