Opinion

Nine alarming developments from the Kansas Legislature’s anti-mandate special session

December 1, 2021 3:33 am

A crowd watches from the gallery in the House of Representatives during the special session. Legislators passed an anti-mandate bill that was then signed by Gov. Laura Kelly. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The special session of the Kansas Legislature came and went the Monday of Thanksgiving week, a swirl of turbocharged politicking and messaging bills. You could be forgiven for overlooking the session, what with the need to defrost that 70-pound turkey and prepare gluten-free stuffing for Aunt Delores.

Yet both you and Delores deserve to know what happened. The Kansas Reflector’s own Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith provided an essential account, but I’m here to highlight particularly alarming notes from a cacophonous day. Yes, a bill passed and was subsequently signed into law. That’s only the beginning, however.

Here are nine things to watch — and beware — from our Legislature this second pandemic holiday season.

 

We’re not done with the Holocaust comparisons. Sure, we’ve seen the yellow Stars of David and heard the weird references to the “modern-day Jew” (not actual Jewish people, mind you, but people choosing not to get vaccinated). But how would you like a cattle car reference? You got one!

Rep. Michael Houser, R-Columbus, did the honors.

“What’s next?” he said, criticizing attempts to vaccinate more people against a life-threatening disease. “I mean, they gonna start loading unvaccinated into cattle cars and keeping us segregated?”

Sigh. No, representative. They’re not going to do that.

Daran Duffy, with his wife and daughter, wear Jewish stars to a hearing on COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Duffy told lawmakers he wears the star as a reminder that Hitler’s action were lawful. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

 

Could you please find a handkerchief?  Anti-vaccine audience members really wanted to be heard. They weren’t content with catcalling, so these classy folks decided to cough on legislators instead.

Eventually they were silenced and simply made theatrical arm movements, which I suppose we could consider an improvement. Thank Smith for capturing a scene of them doing so, which former Reflector opinion editor C.J. Janovy pointed out on Twitter looked disconcertingly like a Norman Rockwell painting.

Anti-vaxxers observing House debate from the chamber gallery raise their hands in silent support after being admonished for previous outbursts. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Forget gay people. Unvaccinated folks need their rights first. Here’s a fun fact: LGBTQ folks in Kansas still aren’t included in state antidiscrimination law. Sure, the U.S. Supreme Court has stepped up in recent years, but state legislators haven’t exactly been eager to protect the non-straight and non-cisgender among us.

You know who Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, thinks absolutely should be protected? The unvaccinated.

According to Carpenter’s coverage of the Senate debate, Straub “proposed an amendment that would add COVID-19 status to race, color, sex, national origin and other categories” included in state civil rights law. That amendment didn’t make it into the final legislative package, but it could well be debated in next year’s session.

 

We love lying in the name of religion. You might think that legislators who profess devotion to a faith or creed would be concerned if members of the public lie about their beliefs to avoid vaccination. But that wasn’t the message. 

Meeting before the session, Smith wrote, representatives “raised concerns about extending exemptions on the basis of ‘non-theistic moral and ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong.’ Others raised concerns about the prohibition on inquiring about the validity of religious beliefs.” At least one representative defending the bill saw that as a feature, however, not a bug.

“A lot of people are going to find Jesus, and I think that’s fantastic,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston.

Perhaps then they might listen to Pope Francis and get the shot.

Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican and member of the government overreach committee, says “a lot of people are going to find Jesus” because of proposed legislation strengthening religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine requirements. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Messaging is policy. How important was the legislation that passed? If you listened to Democrats, not really. They accused Republicans of backing a messaging bill that would fall short of its stated goals. Yet the lopsided vote in favor of the final measure, and Gov. Laura Kelly quickly adding her signature, suggests that both sides saw political benefit in fighting federal mandates.

Don’t discount messaging. Messages have meaning, and that meaning affects how people behave. The message sent by legislators and the governor lent aid and support to some of the worst elements of modern politics. Sure, Kelly may have strengthened her re-election campaign, and perhaps the sacrifice was worth it. A veto could have created other, worse consequences. Maybe everything will work out.

Count me unconvinced that downplaying a once-in-a-century pandemic was worth it.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed the special session bill passed by the Legislature, saying “it is too late to impose a federal standard.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Democrats are the party of business? You have to wonder how the Kansas Chamber felt. A stalwart supporter of state business interests, the chamber watched Republicans dismiss its concerns about the anti-mandate legislation. At least one lawmaker went where few conservatives would have dared to tread a few years ago.

“Business rights are pretend,” said Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican. “They don’t really exist.”

Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber, says businesses don’t like being trapped between federal mandates and proposed state laws. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

 

A voice in the wilderness. Poor Rep. John Eplee. As both an Atchison doctor and a Republican, he has time and again been forced to rebuke anti-science and anti-public health voices in his party. He did it during the special session, in a forceful speech recounted by the Reflector.

“There is no doubt in my mind as a practicing, living, breathing, primary care physician that this vaccine is incredibly safe and very prudent to give to our patients,” Eplee said during remarks he might want to photocopy for inevitable future use.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you think we’re going to be done with the virus through this bill or through other things, you’re fooling yourself,” Eplee added. “This virus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, and this virus isn’t done with us. It’s going to continue to percolate along.”

Rep. John Eplee, a Republican primary care physician from Atchison, says during debate in the House that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Oh, you thought this was over? It’s definitely not over. One day and one bill passed most definitely didn’t sate the appetites of legislators. We will be here again, as soon as the 2022 session begins. As Carpenter and Smith wrote in a follow up

“Expect the Legislature to grapple with an assortment of coronavirus bills, including one taking away authority of private businesses to mandate employees get a COVID-19 vaccination. … Waiting in the wings is a measure prohibiting any form of ‘vaccination passport’ indicating who did or didn’t get a shot. Another would make it illegal to ‘profile,’ or easily identify, people who secured exemptions to vaccination.” And so on.

Buckle up kids (and Aunt Delores). It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

 

The World Health Organization classified the new COVID-19 variant as a “variant of concern” because of its high mutation and transmission rate. The new strain is called “omicron.” (Getty Images)

The virus would like a word. Remember COVID-19? It was the virus that started this whole mess. While senators and representatives preened, talking of freedom and government overreach, scientists in South Africa were about to identify a new variant. Omicron, as it was subsequently dubbed, boasts an array of unfamiliar mutations that could make it worse than other variants — or not. It’s still too early to say.

The discovery reminds us that COVD-19 vaccines are meant to tame a still-raging pandemic. They’re meant to stop suffering and pain. Mandates may spark controversy, but we need a fully vaccinated public. The Legislature’s special session put the pandemic’s end further out of reach.

All the political theater in the world can’t hide that.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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