Church Group Excludes Guide Dog From Retreat Facility
Nancy Stevens, who has traveled around the world as a member of the paralympic ski team and is a world champion blind woman triathlete, sued the religious group Optimum Health Institute (OHI) when she was told that she could not bring her guide dog to a spiritual retreat held by OHI in Lemon Grove, near San Diego. Stevens, who was about to undergo cancer surgery, had contacted the group to inquire about its holistic health program in which people participate in prayer circles; some say that they have been transformed by “miraculous health.”
When Stevens said she would attend an OHI retreat for a week with a cane, she was told she could bring a companion, who would be charged half-price.
In 2010, Stevens sued OHI on the grounds that “she did not need anyone’s assistance, that she was independent and able to care for herself”; that she has “lived independently for over 20 years”; that she “travels independently wherever she goes, utilizing public transportation and her excellent mobility skills.” Regarding the guide dog, OHI said:
“The grounds of OHI are sacred. In order to maintain a pure environment for healing and worship, OHI cannot—and does not—welcome animals…. [I]n the eyes of the Church, based upon the teachings of the Old Testament, OHI’s grounds are sacred but animals are not…. Allowing animals into the grounds is antithetical to the promotion of a safe, healing environment at the Institute, particularly for people who have animal phobias or allergies….”
Stevens sought $75,000 in monetary damages from OHI, and called “for an order enjoining Defendants from preventing or causing the prevention of a guide dog, signal dog, or service dog from carrying out its functions in assisting a disabled person who attends OHI’s detoxification program or who visits OHI’s health center in Lemon Grove, California.” OHI countered that, as it is not a business establishment or public accommodation but a religious organization, disability laws did not apply.
The case has not yet been resolved. One of the arguments that OHI has offered, and that other providers of such services could potentially argue, is that the presence of a guide dog in its facility might affect OHI’s healing and “detoxification” services.
As John Ensminger writes on the Dog Law Reporter [author's note: I have put some particularly important points in boldface]:
OHI, in its FAQs, states that pets “including service animals are not permitted in any area of OHI. During the detoxification process, guests become very sensitive to aromas, contaminates and pet allergens.” It is to be noted that service animals are not pets, something the court did not remark upon. In any case, the court may be signaling that it is possible OHI can make a “fundamental alteration” argument. In revising the ADA regulations in 2010, the Department of Justice allowed that a service animal could be removed from a public accommodation if “the presence of the animal constitutes a fundamental alteration to the nature of the goods, services, facilities, and activities of the place of public accommodation.” 75 Fed. Reg. 56267 The Department of Justice “maintains that the appropriateness of an exclusion can be assessed by reviewing how a public accommodation addresses comparable situations that do not involve a service animal.” 75 Fed. Reg. 56271. Thus, the court might look to whether OHI also precludes flowers from being in vases around the facility, or air fresheners from being in rooms, since pollens and chemicals are common triggers of allergic reactions. It is also to be noted that appropriate grooming of the dog might reduce allergic reactions.
OHI would also have to show that there would be no accommodation that could not take possible allergic reactions of the dog into account. ….
Stevens has a picture of herself with her dog on her website. Stevens may not have helped herself on the service dog issue by agreeing at one point to use a cane instead of bringing her guide dog. It may have been more important for her to go to OHI than win on the service dog issue, and it is not clear at the moment that the case will continue. Since some important issues are involved, it is to be hoped that the court will be able to consider them. Others with guide dogs may encounter problems with OHI and similar facilities in the future, and it would be unfortunate if they have to fight the same battle over again.
OHI is arguing that the very presence of a guide dog on the grounds of its healing facilities is a problem. By stating such, it is in effect saying that its facilities and the services therein provided are not available for some people and specifically those with disabilities who rely on guide dogs. But might not other entities — flowers and air fresheners, as Ensminger says — trigger similar concerns about contaminating the “detoxification process”?
Is it rather the very presence of a dog on the Lemon Grove grounds that was at issue?
Therapy Dogs and Autistic Children
I’ve written before about the therapeutic importance of therapy and service dogs to autistic children. We don’t have a therapy dog for our 14-year-old son Charlie. When he was younger, he was terrified of dogs. Over the years, he has gotten less fearful of dogs. He stays on his bike when he and my husband encounter dogs on the bike trails and the sidewalk and he simply walks (rather than running at top speed) when we meet someone with a dog on our walks. These walks often serve the dual purpose of exercise and relaxation technique and our canine encounters have become more and more welcome to me. Dogs respond to Charlie’s body language and noises (growls, moans — Charlie can talk a little but much of his verbal repertoire does not involve words) by responding in kind, being able to sense his emotional state from his body language in ways that most humans overlook. When Charlie is upset and “on edge,” seeing and hearing a dog can distract him from whatever is troubling him in a beneficial way.
In other words, by not allowing dogs on its grounds, it’s possible that OHI might be excluding not only individuals, but animals who themselves serve a key therapeutic role.
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Photo by smerikal