Two local legislators explained their support of the new Kansas law meant to soften federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The measure makes it easy for workers to claim a religious exemption from COVID-19 mandates and provides unemployment benefits to people fired for refusing shots.

Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, sponsored SB1.

“The most important part of the bill for me was it allowed thousands of hardworking Kansans to make their decision whether to take the vaccine without fear of choosing to take the vaccine or lose their job,” said Alley, Senate Majority Leader.

He added that many people had testified, and were at the Capitol this week to watch the special session to “demand we stop the Joe Biden mandate.”

The silent majority spoke out, Alley said, and Kelly abandoned her political party to support the bill. She signed it Tuesday afternoon.

Rep. Bill Rhiley, R-Wellington, voted for the legislation. He said it requires the Kansas Department of Labor to review any unemployment claims denied since Sept. 9 to determine whether they were rejected related to a vaccine mandate. Any worker fired or who quit due to a federal mandate becomes eligible for jobless payments.

Going forward, a worker only has to sign a written paper stating they decline the vaccine due to religious beliefs, and the employer can’t question that assertion.

Employers with fewer than 100 workers face fines up to $10,000 per incident if they violate that provision. The penalty is up to $50,000 for larger companies. The fines would go into the unemployment fund.

“As our state and our nation emerge from the economic fallout of COVID-19, the last thing we need to do is make it harder for people to remain in the workforce,” Rhiley said. “Our economy and the livelihood of every Kansas family depends on people’s ability to go to work every day.”

Rep. Cheryl Helmer, R-Mulvane, also voted for the bill. Messages sent to two email addresses for her  Tuesday were not returned. Other area lawmakers — Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence; and Sen. Michael Fagg, R-El Dorado — also supported the legislation.

Many Democrats saw the bill as a largely symbolic measure that offers little real protection to workers who want to resist vaccine mandates.

They said federal lawsuits against Biden’s mandates will determine whether the requirements stand, and if they do, state laws will be void.

“We’re hoodwinking the public if they think this means anything,” said Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat.

During negotiations between Monday evening between the House and Senate, GOP senators dropped a proposal from conservatives in their chamber to prohibit private employers from imposing their own vaccine requirements, whether or not Biden’s mandates survive the federal lawsuits challenging them.

Associated Press Reporter John Hanna contributed to this report.

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