Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has signed a bill that allows workers to be exempt from COVID-19 vaccine mandates if getting vaccinated would endanger their health or violate their religious beliefs.
The Republican-controlled legislature approved the measure in a special session on Nov. 22; the governor, a Democrat, signed it the next day.
Kelly is one of the few prominent Democrats to voice opposition to President Joe Biden’s private employer vaccine mandate, and she reiterated her stance in a statement after she signed House Bill 2001.
“I have been clear that I believe it is too late to impose a federal standard. States have been leading the fight against COVID-19 for nearly two years. I know there are Kansans who believe this legislation goes too far, and there are others who believe this legislation doesn’t go far enough. But I was elected to lead, and leadership means seeking compromise,” she said.
“This bill is the result of compromise in action. Now that it is signed, we need to turn our attention towards pressing issues like growing our economy and passing my plan to Axe the Food Tax, so we can put money back into everyday Kansans’ pockets.”
The legislation specifies that an employer who imposes vaccination requirements must exempt a worker if the worker submits a written waiver request stating that getting vaccinated would endanger their life or health or an individual residing with them, backed by a statement from a physician or other health professional; or that getting vaccinated would violate “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Employers who violate the law could be sued in court by the state’s secretary of labor, with fines totaling up to $50,000 per violation, depending on the size of the business.
It also allows people who were fired or not hired over a refusal to get vaccinated to gain unemployment benefits, provided they submitted a waiver request and it was denied.
“This is a straightforward law that clarifies for Kansas employers that they need to accept medical and religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccinations. These exemptions are the same exemptions allowed under federal law. We just took the ambiguity out of the federal law and created an enforcement mechanism,” state Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican and one of the measure’s sponsors, said in a statement.
“I’m proud of the work we did to help Kansans keep their jobs,” added state Republican Rep. John Barker, another sponsor.
Only two Democrats voted for the legislation, and many voiced criticism of Kelly for signing it. Kelly is facing a reelection challenge from Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
“I think that the governor has made a bad bargain,” Democratic state Rep. John Carmichael told the Kansas City Star.
“This bill is unconstitutional and places an unreasonable burden on Kansas businesses,” state Rep. Cindy Neighbor, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter.