Kansas ponders open churches, abortion limits in pandemics

Kansas ponders open churches, abortion limits in pandemics

Kansas state Rep. Jesse Burris, R-Mulvane, makes a point during a debate on legislation rewriting state emergency management laws during a House Judiciary Committee, Monday, March 1, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Burris wants to ensure that a governor cannot impose restrictions on religious gatherings in future pandemics or keep abortion clinics operating if businesses are shut down. (Credit: John Hanna/AP.)

Conservative legislators, still smarting over actions Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took early in the coronavirus pandemic, pushed Monday to prevent the state from restricting religious gatherings or keeping abortion providers open during emergencies.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Conservative legislators, still smarting over actions Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took early in the coronavirus pandemic, pushed Monday to prevent the state from restricting religious gatherings or keeping abortion providers open during emergencies.

But Republicans are deeply split over how much to limit the power of state and local officials during future pandemics. Kelly kept a statewide stay-at-home order in place for five weeks last spring to check COVID-19’s spread. But the GOP-controlled Legislature later forced her to accept local control over mask mandates and the restriction of businesses and public gatherings to keep a state of emergency in place under a law that expires March 31.

Legislators are considering permanent changes in Kansas emergency management laws, and the state Senate was set to debate a bill that would go further in restricting the power of the governor, the state health department’s director and local officials during public health emergencies. The House Judiciary Committee debated a narrower measure aimed at giving legislative leaders a bigger role in managing disasters.

The final version of the bill is likely to be drafted by negotiators for the House and Senate later this month after their chambers approve their own legislation. Some GOP lawmakers have complained that rank-and-file legislators were largely bystanders for most of the time after COVID-19 first reached the state in March 2020.

“Our voices were silenced,” said Rep. Mark Samsel, a Wellsville Republican. “We were told what to do, and we weren’t allowed to do anything about it or have a voice at the table for two months that we’ll never get back.”

The Legislature’s debate over emergency management laws comes after weeks of criticism from Republican lawmakers that the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been too slow. As of Friday, the state reported that at least 370,000 people had received at least one of two required doses of vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, or 12.7 percent of the state’s 2.9 million residents.

Kansas expects to receive 23,400 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared for use Saturday.

The state has seen a decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and that’s led some Republicans to argue that the state of emergency for the pandemic could be allowed to expire at the end of this month.

The Senate’s bill contains provisions that would prevent state and local officials from taking “any action” to limit religious gatherings during a public health emergency. It also would require officials to to shut down abortion providers if other “business or commercial activity” is stopped.

Rep. Jesse Burris, a Mulvane Republican, attempted to add the same provisions to the House Judiciary Committee’s bill during a debate Monday, but GOP committee members split over it. His attempt failed on an 11-5 vote.

A cluster of coronavirus cases tied to religious gatherings prompted Kelly to attempt to limit indoor worship to 10 participants just before last Easter. She was forced to back off after two churches filed a federal lawsuit and a judge ruled in their favor.

Also in April, the Sedgwick County Commission and GOP lawmakers urged Kelly to restrict abortion clinics to performing only essential procedures at a time when other health care providers were delaying or considering delays in elective procedures. The governor refused, declaring “reproductive health” an “essential need” during the statewide stay-at-home order.

“We put our stake in the ground and say, ‘No, we don’t believe abortion is essential,'” said Republican Rep. Stephen Owens, of Hesston.

But Democratic Rep. Boog Highberger, of Lawrence, said abortion is different to other elective procedures because it is “time sensitive.”

“I see this as just another attempt to use the power of the government to force women to have children that they don’t want to have,” he said.

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