Bill expanding vaccine exemptions fails to get out of committee

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Close-up medical syringe with a vaccine.

A Senate committee on Thursday morning voted down a bill broadening an exemption for vaccines by requiring schools and day care centers to grant waivers to children on the basis of a sincerely held religious belief without further inquiry.

The Senate health committee voted 4-3 to sideline the bill, which had already been narrowed after it originally required employers across the state to grant exemptions from vaccine mandates to their workers based on their faith.

The committee removed the employer section from the bill – leaving it to only apply to schools and day care centers – before taking a vote.

The bill would have still repealed a state law requiring universities to ensure that all incoming students living in campus dormitories be vaccinated for meningitis.

In a separate action, the committee passed out a bill banning the state health secretary from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for any child in a day care center or any student.

The state health department told lawmakers that it would not be adding the COVID-19 vaccination to its list of required vaccinations.

Republican state Sen. Molly Baumgardner abstained from the vote on the bill that failed. She suggested on Thursday that it was not a settled matter.

Baumgardner said there was some questions about the implications about the amendment removing the employer section from the bill that need to be sorted out.

“I don’t think we were ready to vote on it,” Baumgardner said. “I have a feeling we may be talking about it again tomorrow.”

Opponents of the bill said it was a threat to public health.

“It’s a very dangerous concept as far as trying to keep society healthy,” said Democratic state Sen. Cindy Holscher of Overland Park.

Holscher said the exemption proposed for employers may have drawn more attention to the issue than it would have otherwise received.

“Over the past couple of months, we’ve only heard really from a certain group of people – a very vocal minority – who keep coming to Topeka voicing concern about vaccines,” she said.

With the business element introduced to the debate, Holscher said she thinks a larger group of Kansans weighed in on the issue, which “helped shape some thoughts as far as the acceptance and importance of vaccines.”

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce had opposed the bill as originally drawn up, calling it an “unnecessary piece of legislation that places restrictions on Kansas businesses.”

“How are employers supposed to protect their employees who are required to travel
internationally?” chamber lobbyist Eric Stafford asked in written testimony.

“Will employers be provided immunity caused by injuries or illness sustained through the course of employment overseas if they reject required vaccinations?”

Supporters of the bill said that it preserved their “medical freedom,” something they believe was diminished during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They said they wanted to extend rights that were given to workers in 2021 when the Legislature enacted a law requiring employers with COVID mandated vaccines to grant an exemption based on someone’s sincerely held faith.

The bill, as originally proposed, went further to include more than just COVID-19 vaccines and extended a waiver for a religious exemptions to day care centers and all schools.

Supporters said the vaccine mandates put them in a position of choosing between their careers and their faith. They said vaccines should not be mandated for their children.

“This bill does not in the least prevent anyone from getting a vaccine,” Carol Daunis told the committee earlier this week.

“It simply doesn’t force them on our children,” Daunis said. “Parents should be making decisions for their children, not government.”

Bill Mize, from the anti-vaccination group Kansans for Health Freedom, said the Legislature need to do more after passing legislation protecting workers from COVID-19 vaccine mandates two years ago.

The bill that failed Thursday, he said, “expands this right so that the religious exemption applies to all vaccinations and, moreover, it does not limit its remedy to a state agency prosecution.”

Heather Braum, health policy adviser for Kansas Action for Children, said it was good to see the bill fail to move out of committee. She said the issue is likely not over.

“Sadly, though, this may not be the last we see of legislation eroding all vaccine requirements yet this session,” Braum said in a statement.

“We hope lawmakers will continue to hold the line on policies that would weaken public health,” Braum said.

Deliberations on the bill were marked by a contentious hearing earlier in the week when Republican state Sen. Kristen O’Shea said she felt uncomfortable when she was confronted by a vaccine opponent who confronted her while testifying.

“I speak to the Republicans in this room, especially one over here, please follow your party,” said Lauren Schiffman as she stared at O’Shea.

O’Shea asked for security to be summoned to the committee room after the woman finished testifying.

“What happened in Senate Public Health and Welfare committee today was wrong,” O”Shea said in a statement she issued after the committee meeting on Tuesday.

“I will always speak out in pursuit of serious deliberation, fair process, good policy and a respectful and professional environment,” she said.

“Those we represent deserve that from their leaders and I will continue to do my best on their behalf, in spite of bullying and unbecoming behaviors around me.”