When Frank Eckl and his family sat down for dinner at Don Julio’s restaurant last November, they had no idea this decision would begin a series of events that would result in arrest of a young woman and the closing of the restaurant.
Eckl, a 10-year U.S. Air Force veteran, has disabilities that he says stem from his time with the military. His service dog, Spruce, assists him. (Service animals assist not only people who have visual impairments, but also many people with other disabilities too. Therefore, they are not called "seeing eye dogs" but "service animals.")
After the Eckls were seated at the restaurant, an assistant manager, Nataly Bucio, approached them and asked Eckl to bring the dog outside. Eckl explained to her, “She’s for my medical needs; she has a jacket on.” Just as police officers wear badges, so service dogs wear jackets that tell others that the dog assists the owner and legally may enter most places where the public gathers including restaurants.
Bucio insisted that the dog had to leave. Rather than allow a scene, Eckl and his family went to the nearby IHOP for dinner instead. Eckl was especially concerned that the incident was creating confusion and stress for a daughter who has intellectual disability.
For her refusal to allow Spruce to stay, Bucio was charged this past Friday with refusing accommodations for a person with disabilities, a misdemeanor which could lead to a 90-day jail sentence. Don Julio’s closed in December, perhaps due to the boycott that the incident spawned.
What a sad waste – a humiliated family, a closed restaurant with people out of work, and a young woman with a criminal record. These sorry events could have been avoided if Don Julio’s management had properly trained their employees in hospitality toward persons with disabilities.
In the U.S., service animals are allowed to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of a facility where the public is normally allowed to go as long as they are under control and housebroken. Though Canada has no federal law comparable to the Americans with Disabilities Act, provincial laws have similar requirements.
The poor treatment of the Eckls at Don Julio’s can serve as a case study for church leaders. How would congregation leaders respond if someone brought their service dog to the Valentine’s Day dinner? Do ushers and other leadership know that service dogs must be allowed into any area of the church building where the public is allowed?
If your congregation has a member who regular brings a service dog to church, you should get a delightful children’s book, The View from Under the Pew, and read it to the children. This true story by pastor Diane Winters Johnson illustrates her service dog, Walter, as he assists her through a day at the church.
Surely, God must delight to see service dogs present during worship and at other gatherings of his people. He’s the one who inspired the psalmist to write, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:5). Even dogs!