Religious institutions could be allowed on land zoned to protect wildlife if the Deschutes County Planning Commission decides to recommend new rules to county commissioners.

The code prohibits churches or other religious institutions from building on land with a zone that is designed to protect habitat for wildlife. But a proposal from county staff would remove the prohibition, allowing churches to be built in what was once off-limits habitat for antelope and elk. The county’s goal is to comply with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, also known as RLUIPA — a federal law adopted in 2000 designed to protect churches from discrimination in land-use ordinances.

Proponents see the proposal as an easy way to remove development barriers, while opponents say it’s detrimental to wildlife migration, as well as an insufficient reprisal of similar code changes shot down in 2017.

“This proposal suggests the same flawed approach ... that the Planning Commission unanimously rejected in 2017,” wrote Carol Macbeth, attorney for Central Oregon LandWatch, in a letter to the planning commission. “The Staff Report is in error where it states that the proposed amendment is ‘necessary’ to comply with RLUIPA. While the County must ensure that its code and plan comply with RLUIPA, the staff’s approach is not necessary to demonstrate such compliance.”

The proposed change is largely in response to a lawsuit that put Deschutes County in the middle of a debate between religious liberty and environmental concerns five years ago.

John Shepherd, pastor of Shepherdsfield Church, threatened to file a federal lawsuit in 2014 after Deschutes County planners told him his church was operating in violation of a provision aimed at protecting deer, elk and other wildlife.

Shepherd at the time argued his ability to operate was protected by the federal religious law.

To avoid such a lawsuit, the County Commission approved a proposal allowing Shepherdsfield to host up to 27 weddings and other outdoor events.

Central Oregon LandWatch, an environmental, land use advocacy group, appealed the decision over concerns that the church gatherings disturb deer and elk in an area designated to protect them. The state’s Land Use Board of Appeals ruled in May 2018 that the county did not do enough to analyze the environmental consequences.

The county appealed that decision. In April, the court of appeals agreed with the county. Since then, Shepherd has been able to host weddings litigation-free.

In 2017, the county tried to change the code to avoid this situation from happening in the future. But before the county change could take effect, the state land use board determined the potential threat of a lawsuit isn’t enough of a reason for the county to exempt churches.

Two years later, the county is trying again to clear up the confusion. And residents like Frank Dunn, of La Pine, argue the proposal would grease the wheels to allow new churches in growing areas like La Pine.

“We all know Deschutes County is growing, and accordingly, there will be a continuing need for new houses and new churches,” Dunn said. “Anyone opposed to the building of new schools, housing and churches must be anti-growth.”

But in the view of Central Oregon LandWatch, a disruption to wildlife is a disruption no matter what.

“The deer don’t know that’s what people are doing,” Macbeth said. “They don’t know if they are praying or playing basketball.”

The planning commission will deliberate the proposal Sept. 26.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160,