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What Does Kicking Out Service Animals Say About Us?

The story went viral. A young soldier who suffers from PTSD, was asked to take his service animal home from church and return without it.

While Spc. Kristofer Magstadt says he was asked to leave, the church views the story differently. However, if you think about what the church asked this man to do, it was paramount to the same thing.

According to the story, Magstadt says he started experiencing PTSD after witnessing a fellow servicemember commit suicide in Iraq. He said that prior to receiving his service dog, he was hardly able to be in public. While he called the church to get permission to bring the dog with him and that permission was given, church officials said they assumed that the animal was a seeing-eye dog, not another kind of service animal. The church deacon, Archie Parker, who Magstadt says asked him to leave said the dog made him nervous.

"“It was for the safety of the children. I didn’t know if the children would spook the dog. I didn’t know anything about this dog. He (Magstadt) didn’t explain anything about the dog," Parker is quoted as saying.

The laws protecting service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) do not require churches to allow service animals.

But I still disagree with their decision.

The reason I disagree is simple. Magstadt called ahead and verified that it was OK for him to attend church with his daughter that Sunday, service animal in tow. And, what’s more, the church said "yes." When they saw that their assumption about the dog's purpose was wrong, they had a change of heart.

My issue is not with the legality of their decision, but the humanity of it.  While I know that the definition of what constitutes a service animal can sometimes feel broad, there is still a definition.  And service dogs for those with PTSD are not as uncommon as many would believe.

But if they chose to deny entrance to a service animal,  what does that say about them, or even the rest of us?

It says this: someone who has a visible wound or disability is fine and we just naturally assume that their service animal must be friendly and well trained. But someone with a wound we don’t understand, a disability that is hidden, emotional, mental or, simple put, invisible gives us the right to question the validity of the need and the animals ability to provide its function safely.

Magstadt, who has served our nation, did more than that law requires. His dog has a vest that not only labels it as a service animal, but one for PTSD specifically, neither of which is required per ADA.

But because he suffers from something that is commonly misunderstood, and isn’t a visible disability, his dog suddenly became unwelcome. The dog has been specially trained, certified and is even an AKC Canine Good Citizen. Yet, because the church “didn’t know if the animal was safe,”  and he was asked to remove it.

When someone needs their service animal to be in public and perform basic activities of daily living, asking them to take the animal home and return without it is the same as asking them to leave.

It saddens me to no end to think that the animal was welcome if it provided one function, but not when its true function was discovered.  It’s sad to think that the church chose to misunderstand and move forward with their ignorance, instead of taking the stance that a service animal is a service animal.

And while they have legal standing to refuse the animal, they did not have legal standing to want to know what the animal was for.  They never directly asked this question, but did repeatedly say in the interviews I’ve read that Magstadt “didn’t explain about the dog other than to say he needed it.”

That is not a justification for what they did in my eyes.  Given that they are not exempt, as a church, from the law that says you can’t ask what the service animal is for, they have no right to feel that because this person didn’t explain, they are justified in their behavior.

Legal or not, it’s disappointing to see a church that has a large number of veterans not just in the congregation (as they reported they do), but serving as deacons and pastors as well, treat a fellow veteran in this manner. When they chose to ask him to take his dog home and return without it, they asked him to leave in not so many words.

And when they did so, they showed the world that just because the law is on your side, doesn’t make what you did right, just, or moral.

A Girl, who prefers to keep her work anonymous, began blogging in 2008 as a means of coping with deployment. She is a Veterinary Technician by trade and loves her work in Emergency and Critical Care. She has been married for four years to a 10 year USMC reservist with whom she has three very bratty dogs. You can read her ramblings about reserve life, muddling through the aftermath of a very difficult deployment and life in general at A Boy, A Girl and the Marine Corps: A Love Triangle, via her Facebook page or on Twitter @BoyGirlUSMC.

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