ADA and your organization

How the ADA applies to your organization

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, makes it illegal to discriminate against disabled individuals in both hiring practices and public accommodations. However, there are exceptions for places of worship.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 27.2 percent of people living in the United States (85.3 million people) had a disability in 2014. It’s likely that you either have employees or guests visiting your facility that have disabilities.

Is your religious organization complying with the ADA? What, if any, accommodations have you made? Are you legally obligated to — or are there portions that don’t apply to you?

What does the ADA specify for worship centers?

Complex legal laws like the ADA can cause confusion for businesses and religious groups alike. For example, there are a few areas of the ADA legalese that spell out exceptions for religious entities.

From the ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual, Section III-1.5000 on Religious entities: “Religious entities are exempt from the requirements of Title III of the ADA. A religious entity, however, would be subject to the employment obligations of Title I if it has enough employees to meet the requirements for coverage.”

Please consult with your local legal counsel to comprehend the implications of the ADA for your space. While you may be in compliance with the federal law, there may be similar state legislation that affects you.

What does Title I say about hiring practices?

Houses of worship are subject to ADA requirements as an employer if they have more than 15 employees.

ADA Title I – Employment states:

  • The term ‘employer’ means [an organization]… who has 15 or more employees.”

  • No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.”

As an employer with over 15 employees, Title I language means:

  • It is illegal to discriminate against employees who have a disability.

  • You are prohibited from discriminating in recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, social activities, and other privileges of employment.

  • You may not ask about an applicant's disability before a job offer is made.

  • You are required to make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities.

How does Title III affect our building structures?

Businesses and publicly accessible areas are required by the ADA to make reasonable accommodations to serve people with disabilities. This includes modifying architectural elements of buildings, as well as new or renovated spaces to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

However, houses of worship are legally exempt from federal ADA requirements to make building modifications to accommodate disabled guests. Section 307 of the ADA states: “The provisions of this title shall not apply to religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.”

Additionally, many exempt organizations voluntarily follow the ADA requirements in an effort to be inclusive and support those with disabilities or limited mobility.

Examples of public accommodations include:

  • Wheelchair ramps

  • Doorways wide enough for wheelchairs and walkers to pass through

  • Furniture should be moved so there is a path for wheelchair access

  • Specific parking spaces designated for handicap parking

  • Accessible bathrooms

What does the ADA say about service animals?

Sometimes, houses of worship are asked to make accommodations for service animals.

The ADA defines a service animal as an animal that has been individually trained to do work, or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed must be directly related to the person’s disability.

An emotional support animal (or therapy, comfort or companion animal) does not qualify as a service animal under the ADA as they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task.

However, because religious organizations are specifically exempt from requirements for public accommodations under Section 307 of the ADA, houses of worship are not required by federal law to allow service animals on-site. However, other state laws may apply in this legal area.

If you choose to allow pets to attend services, we suggest you compile written guidelines. This way, you can make consistent decisions about animals and ensure that the environment remains safe.

Resources to find out more

Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I. insures facilities all over the United States. We always recommend that you personally contact your local legal counsel to make sure that you are following not only federal but also state and local laws.

For clarification on how ADA requirements may or may not apply to your organization, you may also contact the free U.S. Department of Justice ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301.

For additional information, you may contact Church Mutual’s Risk Control Central.

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P.O. Box 357 | 3000 Schuster Lane | Merrill, WI 54452-0357
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