Senate President Ty Masterson speaks with Rep. Brenda Landwehr before a meeting Tuesday of a special committee on government overreach. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Senate President Ty Masterson says “motions are underway” to call a special session for Nov. 22 to address legislation dealing with COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The Republican from Andover on Tuesday unveiled proposals that would shield employees from inquiries into their religious beliefs and ensure they receive unemployment benefits if discharged for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates will meet Friday to hear from supporters and opponents of the proposed legislation.
Two-thirds of the 40-member Senate and two-thirds of the 125-member House would have to sign on for the special session. In a statement, House Speaker Ron Ryckman urged Gov. Laura Kelly to use her authority to call a special session.
“Kansans should not be forced to choose between their personal beliefs and their jobs,” Ryckman said. “It’s clear that federal overreach on a vaccine mandate has placed many working families between a rock and a hard place. We have a duty to protect our citizens.”
Masterson said Nov. 22 was chosen to give lawmakers time to override any vetoes by Kelly before a federal mandate for nursing homes and other medical providers takes effect Dec. 8.
President Joe Biden also has ordered federal employees and contractors to vaccinate employees by Jan. 5. An emergency policy from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also requires businesses with 100 or more employees to vaccinate their workers by Jan. 5 or provide weekly COVID-19 testing for them.
All of the federal mandates provide exemptions for medical conditions, disabilities and sincerely held religious beliefs.
Members of the overreach panel expressed concern during an Oct. 29 hearing over a religious exemption form issued by Kansas State University. The form, which has since been updated, asked employees how long they held their religious beliefs and if they had ever received another vaccine. It also asked for supporting documentation from religious leaders or fellow worshippers.
One of Masterson’s proposed bills would prohibit employers from questioning the sincerity of an employee’s religious beliefs.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, questioned the new standard.
“There can be some limited inquiry into my professed religious belief, in part at least to ensure that it is sincere and not one that I just woke up last night and decided not to wear pants today,” Carmichael said. “But under this draft, all that would be necessary is for me to attest that I’m not wearing pants — or taking a vaccine in this instance — because I have a sincerely held religious belief that no further inquiry can be made as to whether I’m just flat out lying.”
Masterson said it was “becoming clear the representative doesn’t like to wear pants.”
“The representative would claim that there are others that have the ability to determine your belief, and we would contend that that is your sole responsibility,” Masterson said.
The second bill would would clarify that someone who is discharged from employment for the sole purpose of refusing to be vaccinated, if they have requested an exemption, to be eligible for unemployment benefits. The Kelly administration indicated such claims would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Masterson said the legislation would have no cost to the unemployment insurance trust fund — assuming it persuaded employers not to fire unvaccinated workers.
“The anticipation would be that our employers would not do that discriminatory action, and we would have zero effect on the UI trust fund,” Masterson said.
The overreach committee heard exclusively from conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine activists and others who denounced vaccine mandates during a two-day hearing last month. Dissenting views were limited to written testimony that, as of Tuesday, still isn’t accessible online.
The committee met Tuesday to hear updates on legal challenges to federal mandates. The agenda was updated shortly before the start of the meeting to reveal Kris Kobach would make an appearance.
Kobach, the former secretary of state who is now running for the GOP nomination for attorney general, appeared by video to tell lawmakers about his plans to file a lawsuit challenging the vaccine requirement for private businesses.
He said the order represents an illegal expansion of OSHA’s powers, and he pointed to OSHA’s poor record defending past emergency action in federal court. Kobach said the mandate also amounts to a tax on religion, because it requires costly testing for employees who decline to get vaccinated on the basis of a sincerely held religious belief.
Kobach told lawmakers they should assume federal mandates will get struck down by courts and proceed with drafting legislation to prohibit private employers from imposing their own vaccine mandates.
At a minimum, Kobach said, the state should pursue legislation that makes sure employers aren’t allowed “to second guess the religious beliefs of employees.”
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican, opined on whether a legal challenge could be made on the basis of COVID-19 vaccines causing “grave danger” or being “physically harmful.”
The vaccines are safe and effective, but Thompson pointed to unverified, self-reported adverse reactions collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The unverified reports are frequently used to support misinformation about the vaccines. Thompson said the data shows COVID-19 vaccines have caused 7,000 deaths, which is false.
An attorney with the Kansas Office of Revisor of Statutes, who provided a neutral briefing on legal challenges, said federal authorities are confident vaccines are “the safest and most effective way to fight the disease.”
“This is not based on logic at all,” Thompson said of the OSHA rule. “It’s based on pretty spacious arguments.”
COVID-19 has killed more than 700,000 Americans and 6,500 Kansans since the start of the pandemic. The CDC reports that 53.7% of Kansans are fully vaccinated, including 65.9% of adults.
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