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Home Churches and Wedding Ministries: a RLUIPA win in central Oregon

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on July 6, 2018 Category: Constitutional Law, Land Use and Zoning, RLUIPA, RLUIPA Case Observations and Insights, RLUIPA Cases

Central Oregon is truly beautiful. Among the varying landscapes, the interesting cities, the Cascade Mountains and the beauty of Mt. Hood is a little city in the center of the state called Sisters.

Our clients, John & Stephanie Shepherd have lived in Sisters for many years and have been called to lead a ministry out of their home.  In addition to weekly religious services, the Shepherds offer a Christian based wedding ministry based on the a sincerely held religious belief that their calling is to minister to both those within the church and those without, including strengthening the family through marriage and family counseling, through nurturing and encouraging marriage and weddings and by showing the love and hospitality of Jesus Christ. The Ministry of Hospitality is based on biblical references where the very first miracle performed by Jesus was at the wedding at Cana. John 2:1-11 (NIV). 

Given the paucity of Churches in the area, John Shepherd, ordained through the Evangelical Christian Fellowship, attempted to open his home for a small group to assemble, worship and pray together four years ago.  Deschutes County allowed the Shepherds to have its ministry.

However, an aggressively anti-church group called Central Oregon Land Watch, mocked, ridiculed and denounced Shepherd’s ministry based solely on its belief as to what an “acceptable” religious activity is. Landwatch also argued that the Church is in the way of a migratory pattern of deer and could potentially harm them. As shown in the picture below, the deer would have to jump up 300 feet up a bluff to reach the house, then jump down 300 feet, to migrate on the portion of land where the Church is located.

The County quickly dispensed of their arguments, affirming the judicial understanding that in determining whether an individual’s beliefs are entitled to First Amendment protection.  Here, Shepherd’s beliefs are based on 2000-year-old Biblical references acknowledged by billions of people around the world. They believe that hosting a wedding includes allowing the wedding party to set up, rehearse the ceremony, eat together at a rehearsal dinner, stay together in a group overnight, attend the wedding, celebrate the wedding at a reception, and clean up.

This case was widely reported, both locally in the Bend Bulletin (here and here) both also regionally in the Seattle Times and nationally in the U.S. News and World Report.

The case is far from over as there has been six appeals to date by Landwatch – three to the  Oregon Land Board of Appeals and three to Oregon Court of Appeals three times. However, the decision of the County is in approving the use of the land for church services, weddings, and receptions is grounded well in law and should be affirmed. The four-year land use battle should be over, soon.

We are honored to represent John & Stephanie Shepherd and Shepherdsfield Church in this important and strategic land use application. If you are having land use issues with your local government, please do not hesitate to contact one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich, PLC.  We would love to walk with you through your case.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.