COLLEGE PARK, Ga. – The way Cynthia Coleman was treated at her new church made her feel like a leper, she said.
“They just left me no choice. It was like, 'either you move to that back pew or you leave their church,'” she recalled.
The problem is from that distance, she could not see the pastor. She was humiliated and felt highly discriminated against. And it’s because she had her service dog with her.
Coleman, 58, who is legally blind with no vision in her right eye and no peripheral vision in her left eye—said she was looking for a new church home when she found one about two miles from her home.
She divulged that she called the church ahead of time to let them know she would be coming on Sunday and brining her service dog, Hook—whom she’s had for three years for her continued deteriorating sight—to make sure, she said, that they would accommodate them.
They told her it was OK and then she said, she and Hook were welcomed at church when they walked in.
However, she said, after she found a seat with Hook, the host’s demeanor altered.
“Sitting down for about five or 10 minutes and about four or five deacons approached me in a way that made me feel very uncomfortable. Somewhat aggressive,” she recalled.
According to the now-retired Coleman, they told her that she couldn’t sit up front and had to move to the back pews with her service dog.
“I explained to them that if I sat in the back pew then it was just really not an option because I wouldn't be able to see. I could only hear,” she said.
But the church, who did not want to comment on this story, told Coleman they were worried that Hook would get agitated or wouldn't know how to act during the service.
But she said that concern doesn't excuse how the church handled the situation.
“It was discrimination. It was discrimination. I had never in my life been discriminated against. Never. And to be discriminated against for the first time, as a disabled person in a church is disgusting,” she said.
“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.”
We decided not to name the church because even though it's illegal to treat people with service dogs different from any other person, however, federal law exempts religious institutions.
While Coleman doesn’t want to shame the church, she does want others to understand how to treat people who happen to have a disability, better than she said she was treated in church.
“I was about in tears because we don't choose to be blind and we don't choose to be disabled. I almost felt like the leper in the church,” she said of the ordeal she experienced. “In a public place, especially in a church, we should be welcomed with open arms.”
“Get Jesus in the church. Get on the Internet. Learn. Because other people might come to your church that have service dogs and I pray that you would not treat them in this way.”