Deschutes County needs to rethink its decision to allow churches in a rural part of the county zoned to preserve wildlife, the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals has ruled.

The county has been embroiled for about four years in a conflict between Shepherdsfield Church, a nondenominational church and wedding venue near Sisters, and Central Oregon LandWatch, an environmental watchdog group that wants to protect mule deer habitat, some of which is around the church. The Deschutes County Commission decided in January to amend county code to remove churches from the list of buildings prohibited in a portion of the county intended to preserve habitat for deer, antelope and elk.

LandWatch appealed that decision to the state board, which opted last week to send it back to the county and ask it to reconsider. Deschutes County can still appeal the board’s decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals, which Adam Smith, the county’s assistant legal counsel, said it will do.

John Shepherd has worked as a pastor since the 1970s and began holding church services from his home on a 216-acre property just outside of Sisters about 20 years ago. He hosted two weddings for church members several years ago, and they went so well that he began offering weddings for nonchurch members.

In 2014, Shepherd learned that his church and the weddings it hosted violated a 1992 Deschutes County provision designed to protect wildlife. His land is in the county’s Wildlife Area Combining Zone, a part of the county where certain uses — including churches, commercial dog kennels, schools, golf courses and bed-and-breakfasts — are prohibited even though they’d be allowed in other rural areas.

He sought approval from the county to continue to hold weddings, and several rounds of applications and appeals followed. Shepherd also threatened to file a federal lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a law President Bill Clinton signed in 2000 to protect churches and other houses of worship from discrimination in land-use ordinances.

“This will probably end up in federal court,” Shepherd said. “We’re working closely with the county to reverse this in some way.”

One option is a “friendly lawsuit” in which Shepherd would sue the county with the intent of having a federal judge rule in his favor, but the county would be on his side, not an adversary in the case. Another option would be to sue the state, not the county, he said.

It’s likely to be expensive for the county and Shepherdsfield, he said. Only LandWatch opposes the church and its weddings, Shepherd said, and he characterized the state board as a “very liberal” body that acts as a rubber stamp for LandWatch.

“LUBA obviously feels that animal rights trump basic human rights, but that’s Oregon,” Shepherd said.

County commissioners most recently heard arguments from Shepherd and LandWatch in April, with a decision initially expected later this year. The county’s still working through details of what the state board’s decision means for that open application, Smith said.

In the meantime, Shepherd is continuing to hold church services and host weddings on his property through an understanding with the county.

Carol Macbeth, an attorney for Central Oregon LandWatch, said the group was “very gratified” the appeals board agreed with it. She said the appeals board returning the county’s amendment means Shepherd’s latest application should be turned down.

The county argued that it needed to change the law because Shepherd said he would sue, but the appeals board recognized that anyone can claim they’re going to sue a public body and that in itself isn’t a reason to change laws, she said.

Macbeth added that LandWatch doesn’t see a religious freedom issue with prohibiting churches in the wildlife habitat because it was designed to prohibit any type of use that would have a lot of cars or people gathering. The noise from large human gatherings, religious or otherwise, affect deer in the winter range, she said.

“A church is just one of those places where people go,” she said.

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