New Jersey can keep pace as a national leader in its protection for guide and service dogs and their handlers if Gov. Christie signs a law adopted by the state Legislature that upholds the rights of people with disabilities to have equal access to public facilities.
The full Senate approved the measure, already agreed to by the Assembly, in Trenton on Thursday.
It now goes to the governor's desk.
Known as "Charlie's Law" -- for a service dog who was kicked out of a Cherry Hill airport while with a teen owner given to panic attacks -- establishes fines for anyone who deny individuals with disabilities accompanied by service or guide dogs access to any public facility.
The measure underscores provisions of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the general public to admit service animals.
“If a student needs insulin or an inhaler, we don’t impose a burden upon that student," said state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle of Bergen County, a co-sponsor of the bill. "The case of a student whose disability warrants the use of a service dog should be no different.
“The law unequivocally prohibits discrimination against those who need services dogs, and New Jersey has a duty to ensure that public entities, businesses and nonprofits abide by it.”
Ben Shore, whose dog, Charlie, got to attend the Assembly vote -- and press a button to cast a "yes" vote for one of the lawmakers -- was delighted by the news.
"After a few months of waiting I had started to give up, but then I found out it was going to the Assembly commitee," he said, "and that's when things changed for me. I realized my bill may be going through.
"I take AP U.S. government and politics [courses] and know most bills don't become law," Shore told Daily Voice. "This was different. So many people supported it.
"I went to the Assembly Committee meeting and got to say some words about what Charlie means to me."
When the full Assembly vote came, "I thought I was just going to watch," Shore said. "But they called me onto the floor and Charlie got to actually vote!
"When the governor signs this law, I know I will have helped those with service dogs and that I truly made a difference."
A first violation of the law would carry a minimum penalty of $250. That doubles for a second violation -- to $500 -- and again, to $1,000, for a third.
Fine money would fund educational programs for law enforcement officers on the right of persons with disabilities to have service or guide dogs in places of public accommodation.
“Service dogs have been proven to provide assistance and comfort in a way that many other therapeutic options cannot," co-sponsoring Assemblywoman Benjie Wimberly of Bergen and Passaic counties said.
"As elected officials we recognized their value and codified it into law," she said. "Public officials everywhere must follow suit.”