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Kansas lawmakers move closer to special session on COVID-19 mandates

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Scott Canon
/
Kansas News Service

Support is growing among Republicans to call the GOP-controlled Kansas Legislature into a special session before Thanksgiving.

TOPEKA — Republican lawmakers in Kansas are pushing to enact new state laws before Thanksgiving to protect workers financially if they refuse to comply with federal mandates to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Top GOP legislative leaders called Tuesday for lawmakers to have a special session to consider proposals making it easier for workers to claim religious exemptions from vaccine mandates and providing unemployment benefits to workers who are fired for refusing to get inoculated. Both proposals emerged from a legislative committee meeting Tuesday and come in response to vaccine mandates announced in September by President Joe Biden.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly last week went public with her opposition to the Democratic president's mandates, but she also said she didn't think a special session is warranted. Lawmakers can force one if two-thirds of them sign a petition, and Republicans have big enough majorities. Lawmakers adjourned for the year in May and aren't scheduled to reconvene until January.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, suggested starting a special session Nov. 22, just three days before Thanksgiving, to address “all this garbage” from the Biden administration. The committee on vaccine mandates plans to have a hearing and could vote Friday on the two proposals, allowing quicker action should lawmakers have a special session.

“Kansans should not be forced to choose between their personal beliefs and their jobs,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said in a statement.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who hopes to unseat Kelly in the governors' race next year, has brought Kansas into two federal lawsuits against Biden mandates. One mandate says employees of private companies with 100 or more workers must get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 tests.

Conservative Republican lawmakers pushed last month for a special session, but the effort didn't gain much traction. Top GOP leaders' alternative was to form the committee on vaccine mandates; Masterson is a member, and on Tuesday it endorsed having a special session as soon as possible.

“What changed is, we now have a plan,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican, another committee member.

In committee hearings last month, critics of the vaccine mandates urged lawmakers not to put off action until January because deadlines to get inoculated would have passed. Both proposals before the committee Tuesday came from Masterson.

The first would prevent employers from second-guessing workers if they sought a religious exemption to a vaccine mandate by asserting that getting inoculated violated sincerely held religious beliefs.

Sen. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, said such a provision could be more lenient than longstanding state policies granting religious exemptions from other other vaccines required by the state, such as those for chickenpox, mumps or hepatitis for K-12 students. He said Masterson's alternative for COVID-19 vaccines “looks like anything goes.”

“You don’t have to even have a good faith belief, a religious belief. If you just assert you do, then you get a free ride,” Miller said.

But Masterson said employers — and the state — have no business trying to judge the validity of a person's religious beliefs.

“I would contend that no one has that ability — that is the fundamental contention of freedom of religion,” Masterson said.

The other proposal would revise state laws on unemployment. One says people don't get benefits if they didn't have “good cause” to leave their jobs or if they were “discharged.” The law also requires people to seek “suitable” work to keep getting benefits.

Kelly said last week that issues about benefits for people who left or lost a job after refusing to get vaccinated would be settled case by case.

Under the proposal, people wouldn't lose benefits for refusing to take jobs requiring a COVID-19 vaccine, and they couldn't be denied benefits if they lost a job after refusing to get inoculated against COVID-19.