Standing beneath the cast aluminum statue of Lady Justice in the Department of Justice’s Great Hall, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a bold statement last week: “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

He spoke of Catholic nuns being forced to buy contraceptives. (Actually, the Affordable Care Act required the nuns to cover the costs of contraceptives in their employees’ health plans.) He cited judicial nominees questioned about their faith.

And in a nod to Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who won a Supreme Court case after refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, Sessions said, “We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips,” who was seated nearby.

An increasing number of Americans appear to agree with Sessions.

A new poll by Public Religion Research Institute shows a modest but statistically significant uptick in the percentage of Americans who believe that owners of wedding-based businesses, such as caterers, florists and bakers, should be allowed to refuse to serve same-sex couples if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

The poll, conducted last month from among 2,008 Americans, found that 46 percent thought small businesses should be exempted from having to serve LGBT couples — a 5 percentage-point increase from last year, when 41 percent of Americans said the same.

The shift was most noted among Republicans, with 73 percent of those polled saying wedding vendors should be permitted to refuse services based on religious belief. Only 27 percent of Democrats said vendors should be permitted to do as much.

During a panel discussion that followed Sessions’ speech announcing a special religious liberty task force last week (July 30), Phillips gave his testimony.

The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, outside of Denver, Phillips relayed how early in his career he and his wife agreed to uphold certain Christian principles such as not baking cakes for Halloween, a holiday with pagan roots, and closing for business on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath.

He also said he was happy to serve all people — including LGBT people — so long as he doesn’t have to create same-sex wedding cakes, which he regards as artistic expression.

“Every American should now be able to live and work freely according to their conscience without fear of punishment from the government,” Phillips said.

Service refusals are a relative newcomer to the religious liberty realm. It used to be that religious people asked for exemptions: Jews might ask to be excused from school on their High Holy Days; Seventh-day Adventists might ask to be exempt from having to work on Saturday, which they consider their Sabbath.

Read the full story at Religion News Service