1 of 2
Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Congressman-elect and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams sorts through his office desk in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. McAdams was removing the last of his things in preparation for his move to Washington after his victory in the 4th District race.

WASHINGTON — As House Democratsstood and cheered passage of the Equality Act on Friday, Rep. Ben McAdams knew the celebration could be short-lived.

"It's unlikely the Senate will give it a hearing," said the freshman Democrat, who was the only member of Utah's delegation to vote with his party for the nondiscrimination bill hailed by LGBTQ advocates as historic. Only eight Republicans voted for the measure that easily passed, 236-173.

And McAdams hopes having the bill stall in the Senate will work in his favor, both on a personal and a political level.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
FILE - Congressman Ben McAdams speaks to members of the media after holding a town hall meeting to familiarize constituents with district office staff as well as to provide an opportunity for McAdams to listen to Utahans on issues that are important to them at the Redwood Recreation Center in West Valley City on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019.

"I voted for it because it is a step in the right direction," McAdams said. "But there is more work to do. There is still time to have that bridge building dialogue, and I plan to be part of that dialogue."

The Equality Act, which was first introduced five years ago, is a top priority for Democrats who took control of the House in January. The bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to groups protected under the Civil Rights Act and federal housing and employment laws. It would also limit the legal defenses available to those who, for religious reasons, contest these protections.

Despite assurances from supporters that religious protections under existing civil rights laws and the First Amendment would remain intact, expected opposition from conservative and some religious groups was swift, but ineffective. Among the religious institutions opposing the bill is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which called the measure "not balanced and does not meet the standard of fairness for all."

" I pushed really hard the past six weeks to get people to talk about their difference. "
Utah Rep. Ben McAdams

Representing a largely Republican district in a state where the dominant faith voiced strong opposition to the Equality Act, voting for the bill would seem like a sure plan to end his career in Congress after one term.

Indeed, shortly after his vote, the National Republican Congressional Committee pounced. Spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair emailed a statement calling McAdams “a socialist Democrat minion" who "votes as ordered."

But McAdams said people knew his position and that his vote sent a signal of his support to the LGBTQ community and a message that his unsuccessful push for more dialogue showed his willingness to "build bridges" between warring factions over the bill.

"I pushed really hard the past six weeks to get people to talk about their differences," he said, noting the bill had taken up more "time, study, discussion and prayer" than any other issue he's worked in in his first months in Congress.

Read more: How this week may have earned President Donald Trump a second term

Shortly after the bill was introduced, McAdams sent sponsoring Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a letter expressing his support for the bill and revealing the tensions in his conservative home district over balancing both LGBTQ and religious rights.

“I am a person of faith who understands and appreciates your outreach to others like me,” McAdams wrote. “ 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.”

During Friday's floor debate, Cicilline agreed to a brief question and answer discussion with McAdams on the House floor (formally called a colloquy) to clarify whether the bill would change the existing religious exemptions in the Civil Rights Act for houses of worship or clergy.

" It's interesting to me that we had to have a colloquy on the floor to assuage a member that this bill would not attack a worshipper or a minister. "
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.

Cicilline responded that existing religious exemptions would remain intact. "HR5 does not, nor could any legislation, supersede the First Amendment," he said, explaining that the bill complies with existing civil rights law.

But the somewhat stilted back and forth didn't satisfy the few Republican opponents who attended the floor debate. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, called the exchange political cover for McAdams that didn't answer the concerns about how the bill would affect religious affiliated schools and other organizations that rely on federal funding.

"It's interesting to me that we had to have a colloquy on the floor to assuage a member that this bill would not attack a worshipper or a minister," said Collins, complaining that Democrats were rushing the bill through without addressing GOP concerns to ensure "we make it right."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., dismissed the opponents' concerns about the act's effects on religious freedom and women's rights. "If these fears had any basis in reality, the Equality Act would not have been endorsed by more than 500 civil rights, women's rights, religious, medical and other national and state organizations," he said.

" Congress and the country can learn from our Utah experience and I’m eager to share how that approach can result in an outcome that enjoys strong national support. "
Utah Rep. Ben McAdams

McAdams shares a sense of frustration with Republican opponents.

"This process fell short because it lacked a sincere effort from either side to engage in bridge building," he said. He said he voted against a procedural move Thursday that would have brought the bill to a vote without debate and was disappointed an amendment he offered to ensure First Amendment protections for houses of worship was never considered.

In a brief speech against the bill, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, called the process a "wasted opportunity" to find common ground between the needs of the LGBTQ community and religious objectors to same-sex marriage and gender identity. Stewart and fellow GOP House members Rob Bishop and John Curtis voted against the measure.

But McAdams hopes the bill's uncertain fate in the Senate, where Utah Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romneyhave both voiced opposition to the bill, will create an opportunity to find a consensus among opposing sides. The White House earlier this week blasted the bill as an infringement on parental and conscience rights, but stopped short of a veto threat.

62 comments on this story

McAdams said his optimism comes from seeing LGBTQ advocates and religious groups come together at the local and state level in Utah to craft nondiscrimination laws that satisfied both groups.

“I plan to add my perspective and experiences working to build these bridges in Utah to the national dialogue as a person of faith and as a supporter of fairness and equality for our LGBTQ neighbors, friends and families," he said in a statement issued after his vote Friday. "Congress and the country can learn from our Utah experience and I’m eager to share how that approach can result in an outcome that enjoys strong national support.”