John Shepherd has been trying for years to gain approval to host weddings on his 216-acre piece of land near Sisters, without success. But, he argues, and Deschutes County’s planning department agrees, there’s a First Amendment right at stake that so far has gained little traction.

Shepherd, a longtime pastor, began holding weddings on his property as early as 1999. Despite having persuaded the County Commission to permit the activity, he was unable to convince the state Land Use Board of Appeals and the state Court of Appeals that he should be allowed to do so.

The county’s zoning code currently bars churches from land zoned for exclusive farm use with a wildlife area combining overlay. County planners are preparing to ask the County Commission to drop that prohibition, arguing it violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was approved by Congress in 2000. The act bars land use restrictions that put an “undue burden” on the religious exercise of a person or institution.

The commission should make the change, despite the likelihood it will be challenged by Central Oregon LandWatch.

The county does allow a variety of activities on agricultural land with a wildlife combining overlay. Thanks to a change in the law in 2011, agritourism and other commercial events are allowed, and such activities need not be restricted to a handful of bikers driving by to look at pumpkins. The county allows “outdoor mass gatherings” of as many as 3,000 people, so long as they stay no longer than 24 hours.

That should make the decision easy to allow churches and the things that go with them, including weddings, on land like John Shepherd’s. He’s a pastor, after all. He has a small church. And he has been willing to limit the events on his land to 18 per year, in the summer months only.

The First Amendment gives Americans the right to worship where and as they wish generally without interference. The religious land use act, meanwhile, deals specifically with land use laws that restrict that right, as the current county zoning code appears to do.

A hearing on the proposed change is scheduled for 10 a.m. Nov. 6.

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