"I mean under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything," Johnson said. "Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn't somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead?"
Johnson concluded by saying he saw "religious freedom, as a category, of being a black hole."
The comments garnered considerable attention on social media, including from U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who said they were "troubling" if they were true, taking issue with his characterization as religious freedom, protected in the Bill of Rights, as a "black hole."
The Johnson campaign released a statement from the candidate, explaining that the comments were "an admittedly imprecise reference to the violence that accompanied the Mormons' early history in the 1800s — violence that was prompted by the persecution of the Mormons themselves by both the federal government and others."
Johnson said he regretted any offense to anyone from his remarks. Lee declined to comment on the campaign's attempted clarification.
Chris Karpowitz, director for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Johnson only gets one chance to make a first impression with voters in Utah, and the comments could be damaging for the candidate.
"I think Johnson has a chance to do quite well in Utah, but I think many Utahns don't yet know him well, so if this is the first thing they're hearing about him, then I think it could have the effect of lowering his ceiling of possible votes," Karpowitz said. "Comments like these do not help him appeal to a very important voting bloc in the state."
Johnson's comments come ahead of a rally planned to be held the University of Utah on Aug. 6 at 2 p.m.
Johnson has polled well in Utah, where Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are widely unpopular. A recent poll for The Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics showed Johnson garnering 13 percent of support among likely voters. A newer internal poll released by Republican Rep. Mia Love's campaign included a presidential question and showed Johnson in practically a dead heat in the 4th District — Trump at 29 percent, Clinton at 27 percent and Johnson at 26 percent.
Johnson's campaign headquarters is in Utah, and his campaign manager Ron Nielson, who Johnson said is one of his closest friends, is a Mormon Utahn.
"Few in America have experienced that persecution more than Mormons, and I understand and respect that," Johnson said. "The LDS Church and its historical struggles with the government are perfect examples of the need for true religious freedom, not selective freedoms legislated and created by politicians."
Boyd Matheson, president of The Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, said he believes Johnson's comments could turn off some Utahns who might have been considering the Libertarian candidate.
"I think people have been very uncertain about his positions on a host of things, and so there's been this kind of off-balance view of him. Is he legitimate? Is he too far out there on some things? I think that's why he hasn't gotten more traction in the state," Matheson said. "This has to be a pretty big setback, because really what he's trying to do is get people to take a serious look. … [For] some of those people, in the face of Hillary and Donald, who were thinking of taking a serious look, this may be the capper."