Kansas lawmakers advance bill making it easier to get a religious vaccine exemption
UPDATE: On Friday, the committee voted again on the bill and sent it to the full Senate.
A bill that would broaden vaccine exemptions in day care, schools and workplaces in Kansas cleared a legislative committee on Friday.
The Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee sent the bill to the full Senate.
A law enacted in 2021 already allows Kansas workers to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine if it’s against their religious beliefs without question from an employer. The bill rejected in committee Thursday — and then passed on Friday — would extend that to all vaccines and added children. For kids, those vaccines would include measles, mumps, tetanus and more.
The legislation would take current law further by saying people would merely need to say they have a moral objection, rather than requiring some documentation that a religion they belong to opposes vaccinations.
“It’s liberalizing religious exemptions to really become nothing more than a personal belief exemption,” said Dr. Josh Williams, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Colorado who has researched religious exemptions and vaccine hesitancy.
Religious and medical exemptions have existed for decades. But schools, for instance, often have discretion about how much someone has to document a religious objection before their vaccination requirement was waived.
Williams said religious exemptions have traditionally been carved out for small sects with specific objections to vaccines.
“No major faith traditions,” he said, “prohibit vaccination and all major faith traditions expressly support vaccination.”
That includes Pope Francis, who stated that getting the COVID-19 vaccine was a “moral obligation” and that vaccines are an “act of love.”
Williams said his research found people want a larger voice in deciding when vaccines should be required. Broadening exemptions, he said, poses a public health hazard.
The legislation brought heated testimony from both sides. Supporters of the far broader exemption argued for personal freedom and bodily autonomy.
Olivia Lyon testified about her struggle to find child care for her three children while refusing to vaccinate them on religious grounds.
“Our children should not be excluded in this nor should they have to choose between their faith, schools, jobs or day care restrictions for their future kids,” she said.
Other parents made similar calls for personal freedoms. Kathryn Andries said vaccine mandates threaten her daughter’s future.
“I don’t want her to be in a position where she has to choose between getting a vaccine or going to college,” Andries said.
Opponents of the bill argued for trust in experts and that vaccines protect everyone at school and at work.
Paula Bunde, Kansas School Nurses Organization board member, said the bill threatens to put medically fragile students at greater risk.
“Loosening vaccine requirements impacts those children who cannot get vaccinations,” she said. “That puts them at risk and allows them not to be able to be safe at school.”
Immunize Kansas Coalition Executive Director Geovannie Gone testified that trusting scientific recommendations for vaccines saves lives.
“Expanding exemptions is the first step in unraveling that critical work that has nearly eradicated diseases like polio, hepatitis, measles, mumps and robiola,” she said.
Kansas Interfaith Action also opposed broadening religious exemptions.
The committee passed a more tailored-down bill prohibiting schools and day care centers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.
“I don't think that we can trust the (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) that they’re not going to add this vaccination,” said Sen. Chase Blasi, a Wichita Republican. “So that is why as policymakers we're going to ensure it is never even a possibility.”
KDHE has said it has no plans to add the COVID-19 to the required list of vaccines for children.
Samantha Horton covers health care for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SamHorton5.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.