Tom Salt, an Olathe engineer working for a government contractor and subject to the federal vaccination mandate, said workers should be able to refuse COVID-19 shots just as they would an order to eat a roll of toilet paper. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Retired registered nurse Debbie Detmer insisted the Kansas Legislature fight the federal government’s effort to trample religious, medical and personal freedoms by compelling workers to be vaccinated during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
The Shawnee grandmother said lawmakers convening Monday for the special legislative session devoted to COVID-19 must reinforce ideals of bodily autonomy by punching back at overreach by President Joe Biden.
“Stop all COVID testing, masking and vaccination mandates — period,” Detmer said. “These federal acts are unconstitutional.”
Registered nurse Kelly Sommers said effective protection of public health necessitated people be immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases. Medical exemptions to a vaccine mandate should be allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, but not philosophical or religious exceptions.
“It is the role and oath of a nurse to dedicate and devote ourselves to the welfare of whom we serve,” said Sommers, of the Kansas State Nurses Association. “We are there to protect every single person in our community.”
Two registered nurses. Two distinctly different views of the pandemic. Their conflicting assessments illustrate the challenge awaiting members of the House and Senate. They’re expected to juggle health, economic, political, financial and constitutional issues keenly felt by the state’s polarized electorate amid the pandemic.
On the to-do list will be legislation making it easier for a person to claim a religious exemption to vaccination mandates. Lawmakers also are expected to consider granting unemployment benefits to anyone fired for refusing to be vaccinated or to undergo regular testing.
It’s not clear GOP leaders in the House and Senate have the votes to pass both bills or if they control two-thirds majorities in event of a governor’s veto.
Expect attempts to introduce supplemental legislation during the special session, because history has recorded the difficulty of restraining all 125 representatives and 40 senators thrown together in the Capitol cauldron. The 2022 governor’s race, likely pitting Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly against Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, could add more fuel to the fire.
Republican leaders in the Legislature said they responded to calls for a special session by appointing the Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates.
The committee began by conducting two days of public testimony with about 100 people denouncing Biden and other public officials who embraced pandemic limitations adopted since March 2020.
At times, it took on the appearance of political theater as witnesses compared the murder of millions of Jewish people in World War II to decisions by Kansas officials to require wearing of a paper mask during the pandemic. Another witness compared workplace vaccination requirements to an order to eat a roll of toilet paper to preserve a job.
The GOP-led committee hosted another day of testimony to solicit input on the proposed legislation tied to a religious exemption and unemployment benefits. It produced a flurry of blowback from the Kansas Chamber and other business organizations that declared the legislation went too far. At the same time, the anti-vaccination organization Kansans for Health Freedom argued the legislation didn’t go far enough.
Debbie Mize, co-founder of Kansans for Health Freedom, said the special committee prepared for the special session by drafting a “squishy” bill in response to people forced from their jobs over refusal to accept injections of COVID-19 vaccine.
“Do you really believe this will offer protection for Kansan workers? Kansans want language that will protect their right to keep medical circumstances private and the right to refuse any medical procedure,” Mize said.
Michael Poppa, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, said the proposed reforms would open a floodgate of spurious claims based on religious grounds. The changes also wade into the waters of separation of church and state, he said.
The result will be circumvention of a private employer’s right to protect employees from COVID-19, he said.
Dan Murray, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the legislation was flawed because it would create opportunity for aggrieved employees to file lawsuits against business owners who deny religious exemptions from the federal vaccine mandate.
“We do have concerns this bill could put employers in the unenviable position of choosing compliance with the Biden mandate or opening themselves up to civil litigation from employees,” he said. “We fear the proposed new civil action could chum the waters even more for Kansas trial attorneys.”
Kansas Chamber lobbyist Eric Stafford said piling on a state mandate in response to a federal mandate was problematic. He said a state law providing unemployment benefits to someone who refused to get vaccinated created a slippery slope in the workplace.
He said such a policy would foster an environment in which workers could “turn in a frivolous claim for an exemption only to be entitled to unemployment insurance and a lawsuit against their employer.”
Seek ‘collective good’
Laura Klingensmith, vice president of a health care business consulting company and part of lawsuits filed in Johnson County against mask mandates, said the base bill offered by the special House and Senate committee for consideration in the special session was “worthless.”
It doesn’t put a stop to discrimination and segregation of people based on vaccination status, she said.
“Will you fight for our health freedoms?” Klingensmith said. “Or, will you choose the agenda of lobbyists, special interests and the Kansas Chamber over us?”
Senate President Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, said criticism wouldn’t deter the Legislature from working to strengthen the right of Kansans to be granted religious and medical exemptions to unconstitutional directives issued by Biden.
“We really need to get back to focusing on the fundamental right of the individual,” Masterson said. “We’re not going to let the Biden administration force businesses to play God or doctor and determine whether a religious or medical exemption is valid or not. We’re going to trust individual Kansans.”
Kelly, the Democratic governor seeking re-election, denounced Biden’s vaccination requirement for federal workers and contractors as well as large businesses. Once presented a petition signed by more than 110 Republicans and one Democrat seeking a special session, Kelly relied on power granted governors in the Kansas Constitution to convene the Legislature in special session as of 10 a.m. Monday.
“I’m eager to identify solutions that balance the collective good and individual rights,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa. “I am skeptical that the Legislature will be able to come to a compromise that does that, particularly in light of the positions taken by Republicans during the special committee on government overreach.”
Rep. Jason Probst, a Democrat from Hutchinson, said the special session was a waste of taxpayer money. He said the special session was a $65,000-per-day demonstration of how “extremist lawmakers” inflame debate about COVID-19 vaccines for political gain.
“These politicians, who are openly and with hostility working to keep people angry, scared and divided, are doing more to destroy our country than any terrorist group could ever hope to achieve,” he said. “When it’s over the people who absurdly think they’re enduring the same abuse as Holocaust victims still won’t be appeased.”
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