Kansas bill shielding workers from vaccines heading to governor’s desk

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TOPEKA (KSNT) — A bill challenging President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate has now passed in both sides of the Kansas Legislature, and is now on its way to the governor’s desk.

In Monday morning’s special session called specifically for the anti-vaccine mandate measures, the Kansas House of Representatives passed HB 2001 78 to 41, with one amendment accepted during discussion. The amended version of the bill focuses on medical and religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, and reads as follows:

“Requiring employers who impose COVID-19 vaccine requirements to allow medical and religious exemptions, providing for waiver requests and authorizing a complaint and investigation process with the secretary of labor for violations related to exemptions, enforcement actions by the attorney general and civil penalties to be imposed by a court for such violations.”

Kansas House Bill 2001

Gov. Laura Kelly has indicated she will not veto the bill.

“I will sign the CCR for HB 2001 when it reaches my desk,” Kelly said.

Senate President Ty Masterson (left) and Republican Senator Renee Erickson from Wichita (right), listen to testimony on the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate Friday, October 29, 2021. (KSNT Photo/Rebekah Chung)

The Kansas Senate remained in deliberation over their version of the bill, Senate Bill 1, past 2 p.m. After learning the Kansas House passed HB 2001, the Senate then brought that passed bill in and tabled SB1. Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, described his next move as “gutting” the House bill by amending it to read similar to the Senate bill. After voting 25 in favor to 13 against around 4:30 p.m., HB 2001 passed in the Senate. The bill, now approved in both chambers of the Kansas Legislature, will go to a unified committee that will review the amendments the Senate made to the House’s bill.

The group went straight to business around 10:30 a.m. on two bills including propositions to give workers additional rights if they refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In a bid to potentially expedite the session, the group agreed to merge the two bills together to handle debate for both at once.

The bill simultaneously made its way through both sides of the Kansas Legislature in separate chambers. After the Kansas House passed their version of the bill, that group went into recess.

The two major bills now merged as one were both introduced by Masterson. One was a “religious freedom” bill, which would allow employees to submit a written waiver request to employers requiring the mandate under certain conditions, such as a medical or religious exemption to getting the shot. It would also allow employees to bring a civil action to employers over damages brought on by such a violation. Some discussion during the session between Masterson and Sen. John Doll confirmed this bill defines religious exemption as theistic or non-theistic belief, based on a Kansan’s morals or conscience.

The second bill, which some have referred to as the “jobless bill”, would guarantee unemployment benefits for those laid off due to the vaccine mandate.

“The intention would be to protect the individual. The core of what we’re trying to get to is the protection of someone’s fundamental first amendment rights.”

Ty Masterson, Kansas Senate President

GOP lawmakers held a caucus Sunday night with plans to move quickly on the two proposals, which have seemed to gain support among some democratic lawmakers as well. Lawmakers are trying to work toward a solution that will protect thousands of workers from losing their jobs over the mandate.

Lawmakers usually convene for a few months each year, starting in January. However, a special session occurs when the legislature is called to meet at a time outside the regular legislative session usually to address a particular topic or emergency. The most recent was in 2020 to enact the governmental response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in Kansas and provide certain relief during this time.

Kansas Representative Vic Miller, D-Topeka, asks questions during the Government Overreach Committee meeting (KSNT Photo/ Rebekah Chung)

In addition, another proposal made by Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, would allow workers to sue for damages or medical issues caused by forced vaccinations. In an informational hearing on the bills, Miller said he’s hoping to have enough time to debate the proposals without the process being rushed.

“While it satisfies me, I very much appreciate that others aren’t currently satisfied enough to get their own vaccination, and I think we should respect that,” Rep. Miller said.

The Democratic Representative is one of many that oppose the federal mandate. While, he said he believes in encouraging people to get vaccinated, he said [the President’s mandate] “is not the way to go.”

Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, also spoke out, condemning the mandate.

The push comes after protests across the country and in Kansas, people venting their frustration over the new federal order. While the proposals have gained support, public hearings pointed to mounting concerns among advocacy groups and business leaders. Michael Poppa, a representative for Mainstream Coalition, a non-profit organization aimed at “speaking out against extremism,” said his group strongly believes in the separation of “church and state,” arguing that there are already sufficient religious exemption requirements at the state and federal level.

“We believe very strongly that there is no place for the church to govern, nor the government to impede on religion,” Poppa said.

Eric Stafford spoke on behalf of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, representing several businesses in the state. One bill, which expands unemployment benefits to those that are fired over the mandate, has drawn attention from the business community. However, some leaders are concerned over the cost.

“We ask that you not punish us in the business community for only carrying out what the federal government is trying to carry out,” Stafford said.

Still, lawmakers say their main goal is trying to find a solution that works for Kansas. Representative John Barker, R-Abilene, said it’s “possible” that legislators will come to an agreement.

“The devil’s always in the details, so we’ll have to wait until we have the bill, and everybody will review that and cast their votes,” Barker said.

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