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Do Mormons support small business owners who refuse to serve the LGBT community?

FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2016, file photo, people stand on the steps of the Supreme Court at sunset in Washington.
FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2016, file photo, people stand on the steps of the Supreme Court at sunset in Washington.
Jon Elswick, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon and white evangelical support has dropped since 2015 for small business owners who refuse service to the LGBT community for religious reasons, so now no religious group has a majority of members who favor religious freedom protections for these proprietors, according to a new Public Religion Research Institute analysis.

Fifty-two percent of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were polled oppose religiously based service refusals, a 14 percent increase from 2015 to 2016, the survey reported. The group had the largest opinion shift among U.S. faith communities included in the report.

Public Religion Research Institute| Aaron Thorup, Public Religion Research Institute

Less than half of white evangelicals (42 percent) oppose allowing small business owners to refuse service to LGBT customers, but, because of a large group of undecided respondents (8 percent), there is not a majority in favor of this policy, the analysis showed. White evangelical opposition to service refusals is up 4 percentage points from 2015.

Survey responses from more than 40,500 U.S. adults, including 723 Mormons, were collected over the last six months of 2016 and compared to data from the same period in 2015. The timing helps explain opinion changes from year to year, said Robert Jones, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based PRRI.

"I think the (same-sex marriage) Supreme Court decision being on the books made a difference," he said, referring to the high court's June 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage. Additionally, the LDS Church increased its outreach to LGBT members during this time, which seems to have deeply affected younger members of the community.

"This shift (among Mormons) is driven by Mormons under age 40," Jones said.

The religious freedom rights of small business owners have been a cultural flash point since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage two years ago, and the high court is currently deciding whether to hear a related case. Some legal scholars argue that the First Amendment's free speech and free exercise protections allow for religiously based service refusals, while others say LGBT non-discrimination laws should win out.

"It's a very hard question," Yale law professor William Eskridge Jr. told The New Yorker earlier this year. "Many (small business owners) have no problem with gay customers. They just don't want to participate in the choreography of gay weddings."

Overall, 6 in 10 Americans (61 percent) oppose allowing small business owners to refuse service to gay or lesbian customers for religious reasons, according to Public Religion Research Institute. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 0.4 percentage points.

However, this figure falls to around 5 in 10 when researchers specify that the services are related a wedding, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found. Half of Americans (48 percent) say businesses that provide wedding services should be able to refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections, Pew reported.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case pending before the Supreme Court, asks whether a Christian baker, Jack Phillips, can skirt Colorado's public accommodations law if providing a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his faith. Phillips' law firm, the Alliance Defending Freedom, describes him as a "cake artist" who should not be compelled to promote a message he opposes.

"No one — not Jack or anyone else — should be forced by the government to further a message that they cannot in good conscience promote," said Jeremy Tedesco, lead counsel on the case, in a statement from the firm.

The baker lost a series of challenges before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the state appeals court before appealing to the Supreme Court in July 2016. The high court's long delay in deciding whether to hear his case has led to speculation about when justices plan to weigh in on this debate.

"If the court was going to hear the (Masterpiece Cakeshop) case next term, it presumably would have decided that by now. It takes only four votes to do so — but five to win. More likely is that the conservative justices aren't sure they can get those five votes, so they aren't taking the case," USA Today reported.

Similar cases in Washington, Kentucky and Minnesota appear headed for the Supreme Court, so conservative justices could be waiting for a liberal voice on the court to retire, the article noted.

"We're in uncharted territory, and we just have to see how it plays out," Tedesco told USA Today.

President Donald Trump was expected to act in support of religiously based service refusals soon after he took office. A leaked draft of an executive order showed that his administration hoped to give small business owners the right to refuse service to gays and lesbians.

However, the final version of the executive order, signed in May, did not include these protections. A federal order wouldn't have outweighed state-level anti-discrimination law related to sexual orientation anyway, and these public accommodation protections exist in nearly half of the 50 states.

Religiously based service refusals remain a highly partisan issue, although fewer Republicans favor them today than did in 2015, according to the new analysis. Researchers found that "Republicans are about three times as likely as Democrats to say small business owners should be allowed to do so (49 percent versus 17 percent.)"

"What we see in this data is that between 2015 and 2016, groups on the more conservative end of the spectrum, like Mormons and white evangelicals, moved more" than the more liberal groups included in the report, Jones said.