SC church changes controversial policy after turning away blind man and dog, pastor says

A Bluffton church that gained national attention this week after telling a blind man that he could not have his service dog in the church has reversed its no-animal policy.

On Sunday, 29-year-old Taylor Burch, who is legally blind and relies on his guide dog, Independence, to safely navigate places when he is alone, tried to attend a service at LowCountry Community Church. He was told no animals were allowed inside, including service dogs.

Burch, embarrassed and humiliated, left.

Later Sunday, his sister posted a photo of Burch and Independence (Indy for short) to Facebook, sharing his story. The post gained thousands of shares and comments online.

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Taylor Burch and his service dog. Facebook

On Monday, local news organizations published Burch’s story, and national news outlets picked it up.

Two days after his church turned Burch away, Pastor Jeff Cranston apologized to Burch via email and decided to get rid of the no-animal policy.

“It makes my heart sick knowing (Burch) felt unwelcome,” he said.

Cranston, who has been with LowCountry Community Church for 20 years, said the policy — which he acknowledged was not perfect — was put in place for safety reasons, including to help people who are allergic to or scared of dogs.

The church, which is exempt from Americans with Disabilities Title III, released a statement Monday afternoon saying it instituted the no-animal policy in April 2018 after failing to find a “legal way to continue allowing service animals while restricting untrained, unsafe animals.”

Cranston said the ADA law may be hurting the people it’s supposed to help, and he hopes the law can be clarified in the future.

“We are a welcoming people,” Cranston said. “We do not want to intentionally erect any barriers.”

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Jeff Cranston, pastor of Lowcountry Community Church in Bluffton, sits for a portrait on Tuesday afternoon in the church’s auditorium after announcing the church had reversed its stance and will now allow patrons and their service animals to attend church services. On Sunday, Taylor Burch, who is legally blind, along with his service dog, Independence, were turned away from attending the church’s service. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Burch said he is grateful the church has reversed the policy.

“It was the right decision,” Burch said. “I’m not going to go back,” he said, but the policy needed to be changed “for other people with service dogs so that they can go.”

Burch said the incident has made him aware that restrictions on service dogs in certain public places is a problem and he wants to continue advocating for disability rights in South Carolina and nationwide.

A handful of Bluffton churches are reviewing their policies on service animals since the LowCountry Community incident, according to a spot check of multiple local churches Tuesday afternoon.

None of those surveyed said they banned animals. Some churches said they’ve welcomed service dogs in the past; others said the issue has never come up.

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Lana Ferguson has reported on a smorgasbord of news for The Island Packet & Beaufort Gazette since June 2018. Before coming to the Lowcountry, she worked for publications in her home state of Virginia and graduated from the University of Mississippi, where she was editor of the college’s daily newspaper.
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