Do churches and other religious buildings have a place in portions of ­Deschutes County that are designated for wildlife?

On Thursday evening, the Deschutes County Planning Commission discussed an amendment to county code that would mandate that religious buildings — currently prohibited in portions of Deschutes County that are designated for deer, antelope and elk ranges — be treated like other buildings.

The purpose of the code change is to insulate the county against legal challenges stemming from a federal law prohibiting discrimination against religious buildings. However, the county also needs to protect vulnerable wildlife.

“We’re trying to provide that sweet spot,” said Peter Gutowsky, Deschutes County planning manager.

In order to protect areas with sensitive wildlife, ­Deschutes County established additional restrictions for portions of the county that have been found to contain habitat for deer herds during the winter, as well as significant elk or antelope populations. Under the code, churches are not currently permitted in these wildlife zones.

In 2012, Deschutes County approved an ordinance that permitted “agritourism,” including commercial events in wildlife zones, like farm tours and wine tastings that take place on a farm or ranch.

Gutowsky said churches would likely have a similar economic, environmental and social impact to these establishments, and prohibiting them would represent a violation of a 17-year-old federal law. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, prohibits local governments from treating religious buildings differently from other, nonreligious buildings that have a similar impact on the landscape.

“We don’t want to be challenged that we’re being discriminatory against religious activities and institutions,” ­Gutowsky said.

He added that the code change would help Deschutes County get out in front of a potential legal challenge under the federal law. The change would amend the code to explain the federal law and explicitly allow churches in areas designated for deer, elk and antelope, with specific rules around time, place and manner for large outdoor gatherings.

Gutowsky said one of the challenges is ensuring that the additional use doesn’t conflict with the goal of ensuring wildlife with a protected place to live. Gutowsky said the county is considering preventing outdoor activities during the winter in the portions in areas that deer use, among other restrictions.

“You’re not going to see outdoor activities or events during Deschutes County’s winter,” he said.

Adam Smith, who provides legal counsel for the county, said the county does not distinguish between churches and religious buildings from other faiths, including mosques and synagogues.

“We’re not looking to discriminate between different types of religious practices,” Smith said.

Deschutes County plans to hold a public hearing on the issue Thursday, Sept. 28.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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