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Attorney General says Kansas universities violating state's new COVID law

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Kansas News Service/File photo
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Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt

Derek Schmidt says forms requiring employees to explain in detail their religious beliefs violate the law.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has notified state education officials that some public universities are violating a state law passed last week that loosened requirements for obtaining medical and religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Schmidt wrote a letter last week to Kansas Board of Regents President Blake Flanders, with copies sent to University of Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod and Kansas State University President Richard Myers.

Schmidt said “at least some” public universities are violating the new law but specifically mentioned the KU and Kansas State. He said the institutions must “immediately cease and desist” from their requirements. Schmidt's spokesman said Tuesday that the letter has not been sent to any other institutions.

KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said Tuesday that the university has updated its forms and processes to comply with state law and a federal executive order. Kansas State did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Flanders said in a statement that state universities will follow all state laws in implementing vaccine requirements.

“The factors impacting the federal contracting requirements have been shifting rapidly, particularly with new statutes added in the special session and moving federal deadlines,” Flanders said. "The Board requires all universities to remain in compliance with all previously existing and new applicable statutes.”

In October, KU, Kansas State and Wichita State University announced plans to require all employees to be vaccinated to comply with executive orders issued by President Joe Biden that require all federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated. The universities also established procedures to allow exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

Schmidt's letter was sent two days after the Kansas Legislature passed a law during a special session that requires employers to grant religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates for workers who seek one in writing. The law prohibits employers from investigating the sincerity of the person's religious beliefs.

Schmidt, a Republican, said procedures initially used by KU and Kansas State violate the law. He said the universities had similar forms that require employees to describe the nature of their religious beliefs and to seek third-party documentation to support the sincerity of those beliefs.

“None of this information is necessary except to support an inquiry into the sincerity of the employee’s claim, which is no longer relevant," Schmidt wrote.

The attorney general also noted that KU has a committee to review each exemption request and that Kansas State contracted with a human resources consulting firm to help evaluate the requests and recommend whether they should be approved, which he said also violates the new law.

The attorney general also objected to an “arbitrary” Nov. 15 deadline set by the universities to apply for religious or medical exemptions, earlier than the Jan. 18 deadline set by the federal order.

He said any public university using procedures that violate the new state law should stop immediately and inform employees of the changes.