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Priest Is Fined For Barring Guide Dog: Blind Woman Wins Case-Church Studies Appeal

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the June 24, 1999, Toronto Star.

A Toronto priest was fined $1,000 for turning a blind woman and her guide dog away from a church door because he felt it violated church rules. "People with seeing-eye dogs should be granted access to churches," said Justice of the Peace Marcel Bedard in his ruling yesterday morning. "I think the law is quite clear and the evidence is quite clear."

But the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Canada disagrees and said the church might appeal the decision on the priest's behalf. "The church is a sacred place and the rules must be obeyed," said Archbishop Sotirios Athanasoulas, who oversees all 76 of the country's Greek Orthodox churches. "I am disappointed at the judgement and we are waiting to talk to our lawyers."

More than 15 guide dogs and their owners packed the courtroom at old city hall to support Patricia Simmons and her golden retriever Abbey. Simmons hopes the ruling will help to raise awareness about blind people's rights. "We have to battle ignorance," Simmons said outside the courtroom. "I'm pleased that the judge felt that it was a serious enough issue to give a fine." Simmons was asked to leave St. Demetrios-a Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto-during a friend's wedding in 1997 because she was told it was against the church's rules to have dogs inside.

When she wanted to attend a friend's baptism a year later, Father Charalambos Elles said she was welcome but the dog was not. Under the Blind Person's Rights Act, visually impaired people using guide dogs are allowed into any public building. Elles' lawyer, Arnold Chan, argued that a church was not a public place but a place subject to the traditions and customs of a particular religion. Justice Bedard didn't agree and fined Elles one-fifth of the $5,000 maximum penalty. Elles did not take the stand and left court without talking to reporters after the trial.

"I'm glad it's over," said Simmons, who's getting married in two weeks. "I felt a little ashamed that I didn't do anything after the first incident."

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