Kansas lawmakers tout response to vaccine mandate in special session

Lawmakers have largely rallied around a single measure to push back federal mandates on COVID-19 vaccines, but fundamental questions remain unanswered as members returned to Topeka on Monday for a special session on the subject.

The historic special session – the first time the legislature has remembered in Topeka – unfolded as hundreds of anti-vaccine protesters flooded state rooms, filled galleries and even caucus meetings in the purpose of urging a vigorous response to the administration of President Joe Biden. .

Kansas and a host of other states have filed lawsuits against the three main directives, which require employees at large companies to be vaccinated or tested weekly, as well as vaccine requirements for federal contractors and workers in the workplace. health.

But lawmakers want a guarantee given the vagaries of the legal process.

A new version of the legislation aims to address concerns expressed both by anti-vaccine protesters, who flooded a public hearing on policy responses to the mandate, and by the business community.

This bill was passed by Kansas House by 78-40 at noon Monday, a margin less than the votes needed to maintain a potential veto from Governor Laura Kelly, although the final version is expected to change by the time she is reaches the governor. office.

The Kansas Senate debates the bill in the early afternoon before a vote later in the day, with disputes to be resolved in negotiations between the two chambers.

Following: Kansas lawmakers hold special session on COVID vaccine mandates. Here’s what you need to know.

New provision extends religious exemptions to vaccination mandate

Under the new bill, provisions to extend religious and medical exemptions remain, with an employer unable to question the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs or a note from a doctor or other professional of health.

But a new part has been added, with language from the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which allows for beliefs that are not traditionally considered religious, such as a moral or ethical objection to the vaccine. , provided that they are as firmly anchored as those of a Catholic, Muslim or Jewish Resident.

This responds to protests from opponents of the bill that it allowed religious believers not to be vaccinated but lacked a so-called conscientious objector clause. And Senate Speaker Ty Masterson R-Andover said the goal of removing the language from federal guidelines was to make sure it would work well with the mandates of the Biden administration.

“It is designed to comply with federal mandates, in case they are found to be constitutional,” Masterson said. “With that, it can coexist.

“We’re not saying you can’t have your tenure. But you have to respect religious and medical rights.”

The case prompted Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, to joke at a House Republican caucus meeting that “a lot of people will find Jesus and that’s fantastic.”

But others say the issue is far from settled, raising fears that companies may still be in an uncertain position of having to choose between state and federal law if vaccines warrants are confirmed in court.

“There were only things in there that really impacted businesses more than I was comfortable with,” said representative Mark Schreiber, R-Emporia, one of the five Republicans to vote against the bill.

Another new addition removes a major target from the state’s business community: a provision allowing workers who believe their rights have been violated by the denial of an exemption request to sue their employers, who should pay the workers. employee attorney fees if the company loses the case.

Instead, the Kansas Department of Labor will now be responsible for investigating potential violations of the bill, issuing a report, and forwarding it to the Attorney General’s office, which can seek civil damages up to to $ 10,000 for small employers or $ 50,000 for large businesses.

Still, the Kansas House said in a statement it maintained its opposition to the bill, saying the group was “unable to support a mandate or sanctions against companies that would impact their ability. to make informed decisions on how best to maintain their operations and could lead to unintended consequences. ”

The changes also did little to appease Democrats, who appeared primarily against the measure.

“All we’re doing is adding more regulations and mandates to our businesses,” minority parliamentary leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita said. “We are trying to solve a problem that we cannot solve.”

And Senator David Haley, of D-Kansas City, compared vaccination warrants to seat belt requirements. He said both save lives, and the statistics prove it.

Following: ‘It’s a privacy breach’: Kansas GOP lawmaker wants COVID contact tracing to be halted by special session

It is not known if Governor Laura Kelly will sign the law

It is not known if Governor Laura Kelly will sign the law, if it were to arrive on her desk. Kelly has spoken out against federal warrants, but her office has not commented publicly on what that means for the fate of the legislation.

The two chambers will also have to resolve a question about whether to provide unemployment benefits to individuals if they lose their jobs for refusing to be vaccinated. A Senate version of the bill includes this provision, while the House version does not and House leaders have said they hope the exemption bill will prevent individuals from losing their jobs.

Conservative MPs were also expected to make amendments to make the bill go further, saying they wanted a stronger stance against the federal government. Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, in a ground speech, even advocated ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, although there is no medical evidence that the treatments are effective.

“Where do government rights end and human rights begin? Garber said. “If you want to shoot and not know what it will do to you, I have no problem with that. But I am not advocating that the government tell us what to do in this area.”

Senator Robert Olson, R-Olathe, noted groundbreaking cases of COVID-19 among people who have been vaccinated.

“This mandate will not guarantee anything,” he said.

Olson also claimed that vaccines caused “a lot” of deaths, questioned the circumstances of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and suggested that wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus would cause COPD cases in 20 years.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has reported 2,431 new cases, 37 new hospitalizations and nine new deaths from COVID-19 since Friday. Trends show the coronavirus pandemic is worsening in Kansas amid a stagnant vaccination rate.

Following: “Alarming News” on Rise in COVID Cases Has Driven Kansas Doctor “to Prepare Cautiously” for Further Rise

Masterson implored members at a caucus meeting to focus on the Kansans who might be caught in the “crosshairs” of federal mandates, not disparate issues related to the vaccine and its effectiveness.

But he acknowledged that the members could derail.

“I think we will definitely have a bog,” he said in an interview before speaking in the Senate.

Andrew Bahl is a Statehouse senior reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 443-979-6100.

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