After more than five years and multiple court dates, John Shepherd has permission to hold weddings and other church-­related activities on his property in a part of rural Deschutes County designated to protect wildlife.

This week, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed a decision from Oregon’s state’s land use board in December, approving a county permit that allows Shepherd, pastor of Shepherdsfield Church, to host weddings and other events. Unless the petitioner, Central Oregon LandWatch, appeals the case to the Oregon Supreme Court, it will mark the end of a saga that has pitted environmental concerns against religious freedom arguments for more than half a decade.

“It’s been a long, painful battle,” Shepherd said Wednesday.

Shepherdsfield, a nonprofit church located on his 216-acre property outside of Sisters, has been in operation for 20 years and hosts weddings and other events on a semiregular basis using a large outdoor arch that overlooks a nearby valley. In 2014, Shepherd was informed by Deschutes County planners that Shepherdsfield was operating in violation of a provision aimed at protecting deer, elk and other wildlife.

Shepherd’s property is in the county’s Wildlife Area Combining Zone, a section of the county where churches, along with operations like schools and dog kennels that are deemed to be disruptive to deer and elk, are prohibited. But because the county has rules allowing agritourism operations, including wine tastings and farm tours, in wildlife zones, Shepherd argued that the county’s rules unfairly discriminate against churches, specifically citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The federal law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, says local governments can’t use zoning to prevent groups from worshiping.

Since 2014, Shepherd has spent more than $10,000 in order to make his church compliant with county code.

After a series of legal battles involving Shepherd, Deschutes County and Central Oregon LandWatch, a Bend-based nonprofit that focuses on land use issues, the County Commission approved a proposal allowing Shepherdsfield to host up to 27 weddings and other outdoor events. LandWatch, which has argued the gatherings disturb deer and elk in an area designated to protect them, appealed the decision to the Land Use Board of Appeals.

On Dec. 14, the state land use board affirmed the county’s decision, arguing that LandWatch’s reasons for denying the application were insufficient. The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed that decision without opinion earlier this week.

Carol Macbeth, attorney for Central Oregon LandWatch, could not be reached for comment.

In 2017, Deschutes County also began looking at an amendment to county code that would allow churches in the wildlife zone, in order to protect the county against future lawsuits on the basis of religious freedom. However, that process has also run into problems.

Adam Smith, assistant legal counsel for Deschutes County, said the rule was returned to Deschutes County for revision in October, after the state land use board determined the potential threat of a lawsuit is not sufficient for the county to exempt churches.

However, now that Shepherd’s permit has been approved, Smith said the county is more able to revisit its text amendment.

“Now when we circle back and start dealing with the code more broadly, we can easily cite this case,” Smith said.

In the meantime, Shepherd, who has been hosting weddings during the legal proceedings under a memo with the county, said he’s excited for a summer wedding season that he expects to be free of legal challenges.

“We have a full summer schedule of hosting weddings,” Shepherd said.

—Reporter: 541-617-7818,