Kansas GOP lawmakers agree on how to resist COVID mandates

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Fellow Kansas state senators and Senate staffers confer with Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, at her desk, during a break in a debate on proposals aimed at financially protecting workers who refuse to comply with federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at the Statehouse, in Topeka, Kan. The others in the photo are, clockwise from the left, Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover; Senate Secretary Corey Carnahan; Masterson chief of operations Chase Blasi; Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, and Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson. (AP Photo/Andy Tsubasa Field)

TOPEKA, Kan. — Republican lawmakers in Kansas agreed Monday night that a measure to make it easy for workers to claim religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates also should provide unemployment benefits to people who are fired for refusing the shots.

GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature had been divided over whether promising unemployment benefits would be necessary if workers who didn’t want to get inoculated could claim a religious exemption without being second-guessed by their employers. House Republicans had resisted the unemployment proposal but came around during negotiations with the Senate.

Senate negotiators in turn dropped a proposal from conservatives in their chamber to prohibit private employers from imposing their own vaccine requirements, whether or not President Joe Biden’s mandates survive the federal lawsuits challenging them.

Legislators forced Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to convene a special session to consider ways for Kansas to push back against Biden’s mandates. Kelly has said she opposes the mandates but she hasn’t publicly embraced any specific proposals.

“We have to stay focused on the priority, which is protecting those people right now that could be losing their jobs,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and one of the negotiators.

Democratic negotiators wouldn’t sign off on the deal, but Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers. The full Legislature had been out of session since May and wasn’t set to reconvene until January, but many GOP lawmakers believed that vaccine-refusing workers couldn’t wait for help until then.

GOP officials across the U.S. see Biden’s mandates as violating personal liberties. Biden and some public health experts have argued that they’re necessary to boost vaccination rates and contain COVID-19.

Kansas’ special legislative session comes as Republican governors, state attorneys general and lawmakers are pursuing ways to push back against the Biden mandates. Iowa enacted a law last month extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to get vaccinated, and provisions in the Kansas legislation were inspired by measures enacted last week in Florida.

The Kansas Senate earlier had voted 25-13 to approve a bill with the proposed religious exemptions, the guarantee of unemployment benefits, and the ban on vaccine mandates by private employers. The version passed by the House, 78-40, included only the proposal on religious exemptions.

Proposals faced bipartisan skepticism among lawmakers and opposition from the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce. The business group opposed provisions in the final legislation that said if employers don’t grant a religious exemption to workers who ask for them, they could be fined up to $50,000 per violation.

“We’d never support fines or mandates on employers,” said Eric Stafford, a chamber lobbyist. “What business owner wants to raise their hand in the air and say, ‘Fine me’?”

One question is whether such a state law can be enforced because federal law is supreme.

Supporters argue that the measure on religious exemptions wouldn’t conflict with Biden’s mandates, which allow for such exemptions. But the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and others were skeptical and worried that businesses would be caught between conflicting state and federal mandates.

“You’re going to make a wrong decision, no matter what,” said Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney who represents companies in employment law cases.

Lawmakers had no good estimates of how much the unemployment proposal might cost businesses, which pay a tax to finance unemployment benefits. Business groups had suggested it could be hundreds of millions of dollars, but backers of the measure insist it would be close to zero or even zero if the religious exemption is enacted.

“This just provides another level of protection,” said state Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican.

Meanwhile, Republicans faced pressure from anti-mandate activists to prohibit mandates from private employers. The Senate added a ban to its version of the bill on a 28-7 vote.

The House did not consider the idea, and Masterson said it could get a full vetting starting in January.

Evon Smith, a registered nurse who left her job in Topeka in October because she didn’t think she would get a religious exemption, said it’s important to hold employers accountable. She was at the Statehouse on Monday.

“I should be able to state that I don’t want this shot because of God,” she said. “That should be the end of it.”

The final version of the bill says religious exemptions would cover beliefs that aren’t tied to a belief in God but simply a strong moral objection.

Critics predicted abuses. Rabbi Moti Rieber, the executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said the policy would allow people with political objections to falsely claim religious ones.

“Opposition to the public health is the religion,” he said. “Trumpism is the religion.”

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