Deschutes County moved a step closer to resolving a long-running dispute that has pitted religious freedom advocates against wildlife conservationists.

On Wednesday morning, the Deschutes County Commission deliberated on a potential amendment to the county’s code that would affect whether churches are allowed in a portion of the county zoned to protect mule deer and other animals. Conservationists and some county residents are concerned that allowing churches could stress Deschutes County’s shrinking deer populations, but other residents believe the provision violates religious freedoms and could lead to a lawsuit stemming from a federal law.

“I think our country was built by people with strong religious faiths,” said Phil Henderson, Deschutes County commissioner, during the deliberation Wednesday.

During the deliberation, Deschutes County Planning Manager Peter Gutowsky presented the commissioners with five options, ranging from leaving county code as it is, to striking the word “church” from the list of prohibited uses, allowing churches in the wildlife zone even during the winter, when the deer use the range.

The three commissioners expressed their desire for churches not to be singled out as a prohibited use. However, Commissioner Tammy Baney added that she wanted to see a compromise that allows small Bible studies and other gatherings in the zone, while providing a backstop against large events during the winter.

“I think the desire would not be to allow, without any sort of review to mitigate impacts, large-scale outdoor activities,” Baney said.

The amendment stems from a long-running dispute between Deschutes County and John Shepherd, a pastor who operates a church out of his home located in the Metolius winter deer range, where churches are prohibited. Shepherd has held church services and conducted weddings on his 216-acre property outside Sisters since 1999, but was notified he was in violation of county code three years ago.

The Land Use Board of Appeals overturned a permit for Shepherd’s church in 2016, on the basis that the county’s code explicitly prohibits churches. Since then, Shepherd has turned his attention to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Shepherd believes the county’s code represents a clear violation of the law, which is designed to protect houses of worship from discrimination by local governments.

The county held a public hearing Nov. 6, where the commission heard testimony both in favor of Shepherd’s position, and on behalf of Deschutes County’s deer population, which has declined since the 1970s. Additionally, 44 people provided written testimony, roughly split between support for religious freedom, and those supporting continued restriction in the county’s winter deer range.

Shepherd said after the meeting that he would not file a lawsuit on any amendment that removes churches from the list of prohibited uses, though he’d prefer an outcome that allows outdoor events on his property during the winter.

“I’m open to a reasonable compromise,” Shepherd said.

Gutowsky said county staff would prepare a draft of an amendment following board’s guidance, which would be reviewed Dec. 18.

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

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