Service dogs help keep veteran with PTSD calm
Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday morning to include a statement from the LowCountry Community Church.
Since moving back to Bluffton a month ago, Taylor Burch has been trying to make the town his home.
Finding a church to love and accept him and his service dog, Independence, is part of that.
On Sunday, Burch, who is 29 and legally blind, was turned away from LowCountry Community Church on Buckwalter Parkway, he told The Island Packet on Monday afternoon.
The church has said it did nothing wrong. Churches and synagogues are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Burch’s mom dropped him and Independence off at the church, which is just down the road from their home, and members greeted him at the door. After Burch and Independence went inside, someone helped him to a seat in the cafeteria.
Moments later a man with a name tag approached Burch and led him into a classroom.
He shut the door.
“You can’t have that dog in here,” he said to Burch.
“He was questioning me like he didn’t believe me,” Burch said. “I was totally humiliated.”
Burch left, immediately called his mother to pick him up, and sat on the patio until she got there.
The entire interaction, he said, lasted five minutes.
“I was sad,” he said. “I was frustrated. I was in shock.”
Burch said he and Independence have never been turned away from any establishment, including the church in Charleston he attended before moving to Bluffton. They’ve been to movie theaters, football games, restaurants and Christian concerts.
He would like LowCountry Community Church to change its policy.
“Not that I would go back to this church,” he said, but in the future, people who require service animals should be able to go in and worship.”
He said the church has not apologized, but continues to reiterate that its policy does not allow animals of any kind, citing potential problems such as loud music and bright lights.
Burch’s sister, Tiffany, shared a photo of him and Independence on Facebook hours later, describing what happened to her brother. The post garnered more than 1,700 comments and 2,000 shares as of Monday afternoon.
Burch’s mother, Lisa Willingham, said the incident was heartbreaking.
“He lives with me, and part of the reason we came back was so he could be in a safe community,” she said through tears. “That was shattered yesterday.”
After the incident, LowCountry Community Church’s Facebook page received about 70 new reviews from people saying they do not recommend the church.
The church responded to some of the reviews with the same three paragraphs.
“Because of the various needs of the large number of people visiting LCC every weekend; LCC does not allow any animals in any of its facilities. Due to ADA Title III, this has to include all animals, including service animals at all LCC events.
“LCC’s facilities are not safe environments for animals, even service animals. This decision was made with the safety of everyone in mind.
“Everyone is welcome to worship God at LCC, and there are a team of volunteers who are trained and willing to help anyone who needs assistance.”
Religious institutions and organizations are specifically exempt from Americans with Disabilities Act Title III, which covers public accommodations, according to the ADA website.
A statement from the church’s pastor Jeff Cranston was emailed to The Island Packet on Tuesday morning.
The statement said the church’s “greatest desire” is to accommodate and welcome everyone.
ADA Title III requires facilities allowing service animals to “virtually allow any animal” at all times, with minimal restrictions on areas of access,” according to the statement.
After seeking legal counsel and not being able to find a “legal way to continue allowing service animals, while restricting untrained, unsafe animals, we reluctantly, but responsibly instituted a policy in April 2018 restricting access of all animals,” it said.
The statement did not name Burch, but said the church shares “his concern over the inadequacies of the ADA Title III. ... and would like to be a part of the solution for others navigating these challenges.”