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Utah Rep. Ben McAdams: Equality Act 'step in direction we need to take,' but religious concerns must be heard

FILE - Rep. Ben McAdams meets with immigrants from India to discuss protecting H-4 visa holders at McAdams's office in West Jordan on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. McAdams described the Equality Act as "another step in the direction we need to take," but said concerns raised by religious organizations must also be addressed. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
FILE - Advocates for the The Equality Act, a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill for LGBT rights, gather on Capitol Hill the day before the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the legislation, in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019. J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, described the Equality Act as "another step in the direction we need to take," but said concerns raised by religious organizations must also be addressed.

The bill, which could come up for a vote this week, prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in areas including employment, housing, federal funding, credit and public accommodations.

"I believe we can protect the free exercise of religion and protect the basic rights of LGBTQ Americans to be treated fairly under the law and have an equal opportunity to succeed and live full lives," McAdams said in a statement Monday.

FILE - Advocates for the The Equality Act, a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill for LGBT rights, gather on Capitol Hill the day before the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the legislation, in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

FILE - Advocates for the The Equality Act, a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill for LGBT rights, gather on Capitol Hill the day before the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the legislation, in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019.

The congressman said he has introduced an amendment "clarifying protections under existing law for houses of worship" and has asked the bill's sponsor, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., to talk with religious groups.

In a letter dated March 13 to Cicilline, McAdams said that should be a priority.

"I know that it is neither the intent of this bill nor its implication to undermine free exercise of religion, but I am sensitive to many of my constituents' concerns in this regard and support ongoing discussions and engagement," McAdams wrote.

Asked if he will vote for the bill as written, McAdams told the Deseret News in a statement, "While I have cosponsored the bill, I'm continuing to advance the dialogue in the lead-up to the vote."

Monday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement joining "other religious organizations that also strongly oppose the Equality Act as unbalanced, fundamentally unfair and a path to further conflict."

McAdams said Congress should look to the compromise providing anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Utahns and religious-liberty protections for faith-based organizations that was passed by the Utah Legislature in 2015.

What's known as the "Utah Compromise" was supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and referred to in Monday's statement by the church as having "helped facilitate greater understanding and respect."

McAdams said the state "has shown a great example securing legal protections against discrimination in housing and employment for LGBTQ families and individuals while also protecting constitutional rights guaranteeing the free exercise of religion."

FILE - Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., flanked by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., left, and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., right, joins fellow Democrats in the House as they announce the introduction of The Equality Act, a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill for LGBT rights, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2019.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

FILE - Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., flanked by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., left, and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., right, joins fellow Democrats in the House as they announce the introduction of The Equality Act, a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill for LGBT rights, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2019.

Republican members of Utah's congressional delegation oppose the Equality Act.

"As it stands, the Equality Act is not a good faith effort at fairness and does not follow the lead of Utah's historic compromise legislation, it is simply a political messaging exercise," said Ally Riding, spokeswoman for Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah.

Curtis "believes all people, including those in the LGBTQ community, are created equally and should be able to live their lives freely without fear," she said, but there must be a balance between LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

Riding said Curtis "believes these protections are not mutually exclusive and that LGBTQ equality and religious freedom are not a zero-sum game."

“If this legislation was really about equality, it would protect religious freedom.”

Utah Rep. Chris Stewart

She said he is hopeful his proposed amendments, including language to insert the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into the bill, will be considered before it comes up for a final vote.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said, "The bill, as written, fails to protect the rights of religious institutions. It cannot be supported unless an amendment can be added on the floor to provide a complete protection of religious liberty."

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said, "If this legislation was really about equality, it would protect religious freedom."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was highly critical of the Equality Act.

"The Equality Act is seriously flawed," Lee said in a statement. "It would dangerously undermine the First Amendment and the freedoms it was designed to protect."

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, "believes that strong religious liberty protections are essential to any legislation on this issue, and since those provisions are absent from this particular bill, he is not able to support it," his spokeswoman, Liz Johnson, said.