Kansas moves against COVID mandates; employers may face ban

John Hanna and Andy Tsubasa Field
Associated Press

Topeka, Kan. — Republican legislators moved Monday to make it easy for workers in Kansas to claim religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but their leaders were divided over whether they also needed to promise unemployment benefits for people refusing the shots.

Republican leaders also faced a push by some conservatives to prohibit private employers from imposing their own vaccine mandates, whether or not President Joe Biden's mandates survive the lawsuits challenging them. That proposal emerged from a debate in the state Senate.

The GOP-controlled Legislature forced Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to convene a special session to consider ways for Kansas to push back against Biden's mandates. Republicans wanted to require employers to accept all requests from workers for religious exemptions, and some wanted to guarantee that vaccine-refusing workers would be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Top Republicans debated whether such unemployment benefits would be necessary. Some said their proposal on religious exemptions likely would cover any worker who wanted to avoid getting inoculated.

Kansas state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, asks questions during a meeting of GOP senators, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Lawmakers are having a special session to consider measures to financially protect workers who face losing their jobs because of federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The Senate 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.

“If the bill that we just passed is adhered to by the businesses, nothing else matters. There’s not going to be anybody to let go,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican. “So why do we need anything more?"

The final version of the bill was likely to be drafted later Monday or early Tuesday by House and Senate negotiators. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has said she opposes Biden’s vaccine mandates, but she has not publicly taken a position on specific proposals.

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.

In Kansas, proposals faced bipartisan skepticism among lawmakers and opposition from the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce. The business group opposed the bill because it says 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.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney who represents companies in employment law cases. “You’re going to make a wrong decision, no matter what.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers had no good estimates of how much the GOP 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.

Although vaccine mandates from private companies and local officials have boosted inoculation rates, GOP officials across the U.S. see Biden’s mandates as violating personal liberties.

Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, left, R-Andover, makes a point during a meeting of GOP senators as Majority Leader Larry Alley, right, R-Winfield, watches, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Masterson is pushing a proposal to provide unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs because they refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

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

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.”

Both versions of the bill say 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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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.