Allowing Service and Emotional Support Animals at Church

Allowing Service and Emotional Support Animals at Church December 19, 2023

How can you support church members with visible and invisible disabilities who require service animals and emotional support animals? 

Here’s a guide to understanding the role of each and the policies or accommodations you can make. 

The Difference Between ESAs and Service Animals

Service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs) are types of assistance animals that provide help and support to individuals with disabilities, but they have different roles and legal statuses. 

1. Definition

Service animals are trained to help people with disabilities, such as by providing support for individuals with mobility issues, guiding people who are blind or alerting people who are deaf. These animals are trained to be obedient and focused on their work, even in public settings.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide comfort, companionship and emotional support to alleviate symptoms of mental conditions like anxiety and depression. They can be any type of animal, including dogs, cats, birds or other pets.

2. Legal Rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows service animals to accompany their owners in all public places — including restaurants, stores and hotels — without documentation or proof of training.

ESAs, on the other hand, are recognized under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). These animals are allowed to accompany their owners in housing and air travel, respectively. However, ESAs are not granted access to public spaces under the ADA. Owners may need to provide documentation from a licensed health care professional stating that the animal provides emotional support in order to bring them to a public setting.

3. Certification

While there is no official certification registration, some organizations offer voluntary certification programs for service dogs and their handlers. 

They also provide identification cards, patches or other markers identifying the animal as a trained service dog. Service animals usually wear identifying gear, such as vests, harnesses or tags, to indicate their role. ESAs may also wear similar gear, but they are not required to. 

ESA and Service Animal Owner Obligations

Churches are exempt from Title III of the ADA, so you are not required to allow service animals or ESAs to accompany their owners to service. 

However, to make your church as inclusive and welcoming as possible, you may want to grant members permission to bring their service animal or ESA. You can request a note from a licensed health care professional before granting permission. 

However, keep in mind that people have a right to privacy in terms of their disability. You can ask simple questions about the service animal and their training but not detailed questions about a disability. 

At the very least, you’ll likely want to grant permission for service animals to accompany their owners to church. These animals are highly trained and unlikely to pose any sort of risk to other members. If other church members have allergies, they can sit away from the service animal.

As ESAs provide emotional support, they may not be as well-trained, so you may want to ask the owner additional questions before allowing them to bring their ESA to church. 

Verify that the ESA understands “stop” or “cease” commands and that they won’t pose a risk to fellow church members. Some animals may be protective of their owners, so they must understand commands to withdraw should they misinterpret something as a threat.  

Developing a Protocol and Policy

It’s important that you establish a written policy with clear expectations about ESAs and service animals. 

The first part of the policy should indicate questions that leaders or pastors can ask about the service animals. Examples include:

  • Can you provide a note from a health care professional?
  • What tasks has this service animal been trained to perform? 
  • Does the animal understand basic commands?

The policy should also cover the following to ensure church staff and the service animal owner agree: 

  • The behaviors expected from service animals, emotional support animals and their owners/handlers
  • Reasons that would constitute asking the person not to bring the service animal or ESA anymore
  • How people request ESA or service animal accommodation from the church
  • An understanding that the owner is responsible for any damage caused by the animal

Accommodations for ESAs and Service Animals

Ensure you train church staff and educate them on the laws regarding ESAs and service animals. In addition, it’s a good idea to educate church members about service animals. It’s important to work together as a community for the safety of everyone involved. 

This can include instructions on how to treat service animals. For example, people should ask first before petting. Petting a working service animal may distract them from their task. Considering some service animals are trained to detect allergens, alert diabetic people to sugar highs and lows, or protect their owners from injury during seizures, they need to be able to fully focus on their jobs. 

You can also include nonmedical accommodations like ensuring animal safety during events that involve decorative elements, fires and plants. Make them part of the church family with essential pet items like a gravity water bowl that self-fills or disinfectant bags for droppings and excrement. Although only owners can feed the service animals, you can provide water with their permission. 

Dog with bandana

Service and Emotional Support Animals at Church

With this knowledge, you will be better able to identify and accommodate service animals and emotional support animals that members of your church family need for both safety and comfort.

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