Daniel “Chip” Thompson, the 47-year-old director of Solid Rock Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry at Snow College in Ephraim, was arrested for investigation of criminal trespassing by the Cache County sheriff’s office Friday night at the Clarkston Pageant. The pageant depicts the life of Martin Harris, an early follower of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thompson was with eight others handing out religious tracts that compare Mormonism with the beliefs of other forms of Christianity. He said the Clarkston City cemetery’s amphitheater, where the pageant is performed, is public property, so he should not have been arrested.
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“The Mormon officials started saying this was against the law — ‘you can’t be here,’ ” Thompson said Monday. “We just said, ‘Sir, this is public property and we’re within our legal rights to express our freedom of speech and our freedom of religion. This is America.’ “
On Aug. 11, Brigham City pastor Joel Kramer, 39, of Living Hope Ministries was arrested at the same pageant for investigation of disorderly conduct in a dispute over Kramer’s taping of the pageant for use in Christian videos he produces.
Both Kramer and Thompson have court dates set for Sept. 13 at the Justice Court in Clarkston.
Clarkston City Clerk Annette Rindlisbacher said the cemetery is “reserved” each summer by local church leaders for the pageant and that the reservation applies to “the whole place, the parking lot, everything.”
Rindlisbacher said she didn’t know if that means the cemetery is considered private property during the annual seven-day pageant.
A telephone message left by The Associated Press for city attorney Bruce Jorgensen at his office in Logan was not immediately returned Monday. A message left at the home of Clarkston Mayor Boyd Pugmire also was not returned.
The AP was unable to reach anyone connected with the Clarkston Pageant, but left messages for two people whose phone numbers were posted on a pageant Web site.
Cache County sheriff’s Lt. Chad Jensen said officers called to the cemetery received a complaint that Thompson’s group was rude and shouting offensive things.
Cache County understood that during the pageant, cemetery property reverts to a quasi-private entity, Jensen said.
“The event is a ticketed event,” Jensen said. “If you don’t have a ticket you shouldn’t be there.”
Thompson denies any rude behavior or taunting and said he videotaped the incident.
He also said he checked on the public nature of the cemetery before going to the pageant with friends from ministry groups in Twin Falls, Idaho, and Brigham City. About three of every four people took the materials being handed out, he said.
“We were very non-contentious, you might call it a peaceful opposition to the Mormon church,” said Thompson, who describes himself as a missionary to Mormons.
After refusing to leave cemetery grounds when asked by pageant officials, four sheriff’s deputies arrived to talk with Thompson’s group, the minister said.
“They started telling us that the cemetery belonged to the Mormon church and if we didn’t leave immediately, they would arrest us,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t going to leave.”
Thompson acknowledges he wanted to make an issue of exercising his civil rights, but said he believes police were out of line and influenced by the LDS Church, which dominates Utah’s religious landscape.
“This isn’t a religious thing for us,” Jensen said, who believes officers gave Thompson every chance to avoid arrest. “We get a complaint, and it doesn’t matter to us if this is a Baptist, Catholic or a Protestant thing.”
Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said she was unaware of Thompson’s arrest and had no comment.