Two men were arrested Sunday afternoon after they clashed with street preachers near the LDS Conference Center as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marked its 173rd Semiannual General Conference.
In the first incident, around noon, a man allegedly assaulted a street preacher who was wearing a piece of sacred LDS clothing around his neck. Wearing that clothing in such a way would be considered highly offensive by faithful LDS Church members.
The man took the item from the preacher and ran off, leaving the preacher with minor injuries, Salt Lake City Police Lt. Tim Doubt said.
Police who witnessed the incident chased down the man and arrested him for investigation of assault and theft, Doubt said. "He did assault a street preacher and stole some of his items, like a megaphone and a piece of clothing."
About half an hour later, a second man took a similar piece of clothing from another street preacher, Doubt said. That man was arrested for investigation of theft, he said.
Both incidents occurred on the sidewalks in front of the LDS Conference Center on North Temple.
Lonnie Pursifull, Utah director of the World Wide Street Preachers Fellowship, said preachers wear the sacred clothing because they want to "expose" some of the LDS Church's lesser-known ordinances, which Pursifull believes are heretical. "We do that to show them to a lot of folks who don't know about temple works," he said.
The two arrests come amid continuing tensions over the free-speech controversy involving the LDS Church-owned Main Street Plaza between North and South Temple streets.
Last week, street preachers including Pursifull had threatened to sermonize on the Main Street Plaza during conference weekend. While no preaching occurred on the plaza, Doubt said LDS Church security did summon police to the plaza Saturday night. Police found a lone evangelist holding a sign that church security found objectionable. Police asked the man to leave, and he left without further incident, Doubt said.
The weekend marked the first general conference since the Salt Lake City Council agreed to give the LDS Church authority to regulate behavior and speech on the plaza, which was formerly a public forum as part of Main Street.
That vote traded the city's public access easement, including guarantees of free speech and expression, to the church for 2 acres of land in Glendale, where a community center will be built.
It is being challenged by several plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. The plaintiffs claim the city helped "establish" the LDS Church by giving up free speech and public access on the plaza.
Despite being banned from the plaza, street preachers are common fixtures on Salt Lake City's public sidewalks during general conference; however, LDS faithful have begun to counter the preachers. Sunday a few small groups of LDS Church members held signs to combat the preachers' signs. One sign read church founder "Joseph Smith was a prophet and a martyr." Meanwhile, a half dozen LDS missionaries gathered near the street preachers and sang hymns.