Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the Kansas Legislature ought to pass medical and religious exemptions to the federal COVID-19 vaccination mandate and deliver unemployment benefits to Kansas fired for refusing the vaccination. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate struggled with a series of amendments Monday before passing a bill defining wide religious and medical exemptions to federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates and extending state unemployment assistance to people fired for refusing inoculations.
The faith-based exception to executive orders issued by President Joe Biden would be broad enough in the Senate bill to cover organized religious perspectives and informal individual inclinations — even the declarations of cult members. The exemption on medical grounds would be equally as sweeping and cover all people holding a job, even individuals not subject to by Biden’s orders.
Under the Senate’s bill passed 25-13, a system would be developed to allow employees fired after failing to secure medical or religious exemptions from their employer to qualify for state unemployment benefits.
Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said he was skeptical the Kansas House would welcome the Senate’s adjustments to the COVID-19 bill. He said the strategy was to adopt a Senate position rebuffing Biden with as much GOP support as possible and begin negotiations with the House on a deal. The House approved its alternative, which sidestepped the unemployment piece and other provisions endorsed by senators, by a vote of 78-40.
Masterson didn’t prohibit Senate amendments to the bill, but he appealed to colleagues to remember the 2022 Legislature would convene in January to continue consideration of COVID-19 legislation. The federal mandates imposed by Biden are unconstitutional, he said, but the ongoing court battles won’t be resolved quickly enough to serve people at jeopardy of losing jobs.
“The primary goal of the special session is to protect those individuals that are right now in the crosshairs,” Masterson said.
Talking about amendments
Hours into the Senate’s floor debate, Masterson recommended the chamber shelve Senate Bill 1. The Senate then took up House Bill 2001, which had been minted in the House, and the Senate executed a gut-and-go. All contents of the House bill were deleted and provisions of Senate Bill 1 were inserted. At that point, Masterson opened up the floor to amendments.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, won approval for an amendment banning employers in Kansas from adopting COVID-19 vaccination mandates without consent of the Legislature. It passed 28-7.
“My rights don’t start with the employer,” Pyle said. “Employees feel like they’re being punched in the nose. This says, ‘Merry Christmas for everybody,’ you have a job.”
Ellinwood GOP Sen. Alicia Straub proposed an amendment that would add COVID-19 status to race, color, sex, national origin and other categories for which employers can’t discriminate against people in Kansas. She said allowing employers to ask workers their vaccination status for COVID-19 was discriminatory.
“It is well past time we do something,” said Straub, who became emotional while speaking to the Senate. “I apologize for my emotion.”
Masterson challenged the amendment by asserting it wasn’t germane to the underlying bill. His challenge was upheld by the Senate rules committee and by a vote of the Senate. Republicans and Democrats opposed consideration of Straub’s amendment.
Eventually, Straub retooled her ban on employer discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination status into language that was benign enough to gain bipartisan support.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Republican representing Sedgwick, proposed an amendment requiring railroad companies to allow on-call employees time off work to get COVID-19 vaccinations. Her intent was to protect workers from being penalized for leaving work for that purpose, but it also was ruled not germane to the Senate’s basic coronavirus bill.
Prior to the special session, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly announced her objection to the Biden vaccination orders. She was required to call the Legislature back to Topeka after more than 100 House and Senate members signed a petition requesting opportunity to take up COVID-19 bills. None of the previous special legislative sessions in Kansas relied upon this petition mechanism.
Opposition to provisions of the Senate bill bubbled up during the Senate Republican caucus and continued on the Senate floor when the measure was opened up to bipartisan review by all 40 members.
Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who owns an auto dealership with 40 employees, said he was opposed to federal vaccination mandates but concerned about shape of the Senate’s response. He’d prefer constitutional challenges to federal mandates be allowed to play out in court rather than adopt a series of disjointed responses in the 50 state legislatures.
Employers who ignore either federal or state directives on vaccinations risk financial penalties from either level of government, he said.
“This puts Kansas small business in a very, very difficult situation,” Longbine said. “My biggest concern is we’re giving employers around the state a false sense of security.”
Sen. Tom Holland, who operates a Baldwin City business tied to federal contracts, said the Biden vaccination mandate was misguided. He said the proposed Senate legislation would create “chaos” for employers uncertain of what to do when confronted by workers who apply for a vaccination exemption. In addition, he said, there should be an acknowledgement the right to bodily autonomy applied to vaccinations as well as abortions.
“That is your decision, and government needs to stay the heck out of it,” Holland said.
Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican and physician, said Senate bill was a step in the right direction. He pushed back against opposition from the Kansas Chamber and other business lobbying groups by declaring the intent was to reinforce individual rights when considering a medical procedure. It’s just as wrong to require women employees to be on birth control as it is to mandate vaccinations, he said.
The apprehension expressed by business organizations shouldn’t carry the day because rights of the individual always trump rights asserted by businesses, he said.
“Business rights are pretend,” Steffen said. “They don’t really exist.”
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