Cynthia Coleman was struggling to find a church in Georgia that could accommodate her and her service dog, Hook. She thought she had finally found one about two miles from her home, but when they restricted her to the back pews, she realized the church was not as welcoming as it had initially seemed.
According to WITX, Coleman has no peripheral vision in her left eye and no vision at all in her right. She told reporters that she had called the church and made her situation clear and at that time they had been willing to welcome her into their congregation.
However, when she arrived for her first service and took a seat near the front so that she could somewhat see, four or five deacons came up to her in a manner she reportedly described as "aggressive." They informed her that she would have to sit in the pews toward the back in case Hook — who had evidently passed the rigorous training that service dogs are subject to — became disruptive. If she did not comply, she would need to leave the church.
“It was discrimination. It was discrimination. I had never in my life been discriminated against. Never," she said. "And to be discriminated against for the first time, as a disabled person in a church is disgusting."
Churches are exempt from federal anti-discrimination laws, and so Coleman has no legal recourse for what was done to her. It goes without saying, though, that whether something may or may not hold up in court has little bearing on the morality of it.
Instead of opening their arms to Coleman, asking questions, and learning from her what they could do to accommodate her, the church leaders made assumptions.
"Had they said, ‘We don’t know how this works; can you help us?’ It would have been a different situation, but they treated us as though we were the leper in the church and I just didn’t appreciate it," she explained to WIXT.
To her credit, Coleman does not want to shame the church despite how hurt she feels, so its name was omitted from reports. She said she only hopes that others will learn from her experience and gain a better understanding of how to be inclusive of people living with disabilities and the animals they rely on.
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