In the ward I grew up in, there was a wonderful blind couple. Brother and Sister Keiser were people full of faith and never let their physical limitation hold them back from service. Since they were blind they both brought their seeing eye dog with them to church each week. As a young deacon, I approached them one Sunday with the sacrament. As I tapped Brother Keiser on the shoulder to let him know the sacrament was available for him to take, I heard his dog yelp. I soon realized I had accidentally stepped on his dog’s tail. As a young man, I thought it was remarkable that our ward was lucky enough to have dogs attend with us.
I later realized many wards were able to have service animals and as a leader, I quickly realized not all animals that show up at church are there to serve. Serving in the stake presidency, one week I entered a chapel and immediately a member of a bishopric called me over and asked me for some guidance. There was a new sister in their ward and she brought her dog. The dog had been barking and growling at children during the church meetings. It was causing a distraction, and this bishopric member asked if I would talk to her.
As I talked with her she claimed that the dog was a service animal. The more I talked to her the more I realized I had no clue what classified as a service animal and what did not. Were there papers I could ask for? Did it have to wear a vest? The sister finally admitted that she was more concerned about leaving the dog and that it didn’t provide any specific service. After the interaction, I came home and did a little research on what lay leaders need to know about service animals and whether they should be allowed to attend your meetings.
1. A service animal is a specifically trained animal
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act: “A service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals.”
2. You can ask 2 questions
To determine if the animal is a certified service animal, you can ask 2 questions:
- Is this animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has this animal been trained to perform?
You cannot ask if the animal has documentation proving it is a service animal, nor is it required that the animal wears any type of vest showing it is a service animal.
3. Emotional support animals are not service animals
During my time as bishop, the most common “service animal” that attended our church meetings were emotional support animals. These are animals that provide a therapeutic benefit to their owner through companionship. They are not service animals because they are not trained to perform a specific task for a specific disability. ADA regulations do not require emotional support animals have access to businesses or public locations.
4. Churches are not required to comply with ADA regulations
Churches or religious entities are exempt from ADA regulations. The following quote has been said to come from the LDS Church’s Disability Resources FAQ: Doctrines and Policies manual (though I can’t find where this manual exists):
Although the Church is under no legal obligation to admit individuals with service animals into houses of worship because it is exempt from Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Church policy generally allows the use of service dogs in Church buildings. Other types of service animals or comfort pets are not permitted. The only places where service dogs are not allowed are in the temple and in venues where meetings/events are being broadcasted or recorded. In the temple, ordinance workers will gladly assist you. In other venues, ushers will direct you to overflow viewing rooms where your service dog is allowed. Please be aware that local laws concerning service animals and other assistance for those with disabilities may vary.
You can read more information about disabilities related to Church service at disability.lds.org.
How has your ward handled service animals? Any unique situations that leaders should be ready for? Comment below and share your experience.