Commissioners may expand definition of ‘church’

New definition may allow more services on private property

By Elon Glucklich / The Bulletin

Deschutes County may alter the definition of a church in its development code to allow more services to be held on private property.

The county’s legal staff advised county commissioners Monday to broaden its definition of a church in order to meet federal standards outlining where services are held and when local governments can forbid them based on any concern for building standards and public safety.

The issue is relevant for Deschutes County. On March 18, the county sent a code violation notice to John Shepherd, a Sisters-area pastor who hosts small Sunday gatherings in his home. Community Development Department staff have since said they won’t take any other action against Shepherd while they work on a solution.

County leaders said Monday’s conversation wasn’t in response to the Shepherd case.

“This is something we’ve been looking at revising for a number of months,” Deschutes County Counsel Laurie Craghead said.

The proposal would modify Deschutes County’s definition of a church from “an institution that has nonprofit status as a church established with the Internal Revenue Service,” to “meeting areas for religious activities, Sunday school facilities, parking and related incidental uses.”

But the proposed change also states an applicant would need a separate permit for services in his or her home.

Craghead said the change would more closely align Deschutes County with the guidelines for church services detailed in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was passed in 2000 and required cities and counties across the country to re-examine where public services are allowed.

Commissioners could vote on the church definition change Wednesday.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, eglucklich@bendbulletin.com