Ore­gon county jug­gles re­li­gious free­dom, mule deer

The Arizona Republic - - Environment -

pas­tor for around 40 years, be­gan hold­ing church ser­vices from his 216-acre prop­erty out­side of Sis­ters in 1999, and said the wed­dings be­gan as an out­growth of the church’s work. To­day, a large arch used dur­ing wed­dings over­looks the val­leys and buttes of the High Desert out­side Sis­ters.

“It went so smoothly I thought I could open this up to the pub­lic and bless peo­ple with an af­ford­able place to get mar­ried,” Shep­herd said.

Shep­herd held wed­dings and other events at his home on a semi-reg­u­lar ba­sis un­til the county no­ti­fied him of a code vi­o­la­tion three years ago, stat­ing that the op­er­a­tion was tak­ing place in the Me­tolius Win­ter Range, where churches are pro­hib­ited, along­side other uses, in­clud­ing schools and dog ken­nels.

Since that time, Shep­herd has spent around $10,000 on a wed­ding per­mit and hear­ings of­fi­cer fees in or­der to make the church com­pli­ant with the county’s code.

In 2016, af­ter the county ap­proved a per­mit, Cen­tral Ore­gon LandWatch ap­pealed the de­ci­sion, ar­gu­ing that county code pro­hibits churches in the wildlife zone. Later that year, the Ore­gon Land Use Board of Ap­peals over­turned the per­mit.

How­ever, the county’s plan­ning com­mis­sion rec­og­nized that pro­hibit­ing churches while per­mit­ting agri­tourism op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing wine tast­ings and farm tours, could leave it vul­ner­a­ble to a law­suit based on the Re­li­gious Land Use and In­sti­tu­tion­al­ized Per­sons Act. The fed­eral law, signed by Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in 2000, pro­tects re­li­gious houses of wor­ship from dis­crim­i­na­tion in zon­ing and other land use or­di­nances.

Shep­herd said al­low­ing build­ings like hunt­ing lodges and stor­age units, which might have a sim­i­lar im­pact on deer, while pro­hibit­ing churches is a clear vi­o­la­tion of the law. He added that he’s work­ing with a Michi­gan-based lawyer who spe­cial­izes in re­li­gious free­dom cases, and is pre­pared to file a law­suit if the county doesn’t al­low him to con­tinue hold­ing church ser­vices on his prop­erty.

“Any fed­eral law­suit is very ex­pen­sive for the county,” Shep­herd said.

Still, MacBeth added that she thought a law­suit based on the fed­eral law would have around a 5 per­cent chance of suc­cess. Cen­tral Ore­gon LandWatch is push­ing for the county to add an ex­plicit state­ment pro­hibit­ing as­sem­blies and mem­ber­ship or­ga­ni­za­tions in the deer win­ter range.

Al­low­ing churches just to ac­com­mo­date a po­ten­tial law­suit would be counter-productive, and could harm al­ready de­clin­ing deer pop­u­la­tions in the area, MacBeth added.

“It’s not any­thing about any re­li­gion, it’s just about gath­er­ing places,” she said.

Corey Heath, bi­ol­o­gist for the Deschutes district of the Ore­gon Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife, said the depart­ment es­ti­mates that 5,748 mule deer live in the Me­tolius range, a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline from pop­u­la­tion to­tals in the 1970s and ear­lier. While deer pop­u­la­tions wax and wane nat­u­rally in cen­tral Ore­gon, Heath said a grow­ing num­ber of res­i­dents in the re­gion, among other fac­tors, makes it dif­fi­cult for the species to get back on track.

“It gets harder and harder (for the species) to re­cover,” Heath said.

He added that build­ings that re­ceive a lot of traf­fic, in­clud­ing churches, can de­stroy habi­tat and dis­place pop­u­la­tions of mule deer and other large an­i­mals.

“Our con­cerns are not with any one type of de­vel­op­ment,” Heath said.

In the mean­time, county of­fi­cials are look­ing for a so­lu­tion that bal­ances re­li­gious free­dom con­cerns with con­cerns about deer habi­tat, ac­cord­ing to Peter Gu­towsky, Deschutes County’s plan­ning man­ager.

Ear­lier this month, the county’s plan­ning com­mis­sion rec­om­mended that the county re­tain its pro­hi­bi­tion on churches and other re­li­gious build­ings in the Me­tolius wildlife zone. The Deschutes County Com­mis­sion will de­lib­er­ate on the is­sue at a date yet to be de­ter­mined.

“We’re rec­og­niz­ing through the amend­ment process that a lot of peo­ple are af­fected by this,” Gu­towsky said.


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