Kansas State simplifies COVID exemption form after GOP lawmaker accuses university of 'playing God'

Kansas State University has simplified its religious exemption form, based on new guidance from the federal government, for employees who don't want to get a required COVID-19 vaccine.

The change follows criticism leveled by lawmakers on a “government overreach" committee who complained about the university's approach to “playing God" and interrogating employees for their sincerely held religious beliefs.

K-State, the University of Kansas and Wichita State University announced two weeks ago that they would comply with an order from President Joe Biden requiring federal contractors to be vaccinated by Dec. 8. That deadline has been extended to Jan. 4.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has joined a lawsuit challenging the mandate, which provides exemptions for disabilities, medical conditions and sincerely held religious beliefs.

Lawmakers indicated they were satisfied with religious exemption forms provided by KU and Wichita State that asked employees to explain their beliefs. The three-page inquiry used by K-State, lawmakers said, looked more like unlawful religious discrimination.

“It literally requires you to bare your soul and dive deep into your religious beliefs, your history," said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston.

Michelle Geering, a spokeswoman for K-State, said the initial form, created on Oct. 21, was based on the Safer Federal Workforce template, “and our legal staff was involved." Federal officials updated the template on Oct. 29, the same day legislators lodged their complaints, and the university updated its form on Tuesday.

The new form asks employees to describe their religious belief, if getting the COVID-19 vaccine would burden their religious exercise, and for “any additional information you think may be helpful."

The initial form required employees to explain how long they have held their religious beliefs and to identify any other medicines they don't use because of religious beliefs. Employees had to reveal — with the threat of being fired for dishonesty — if they have ever received another vaccine — and “if so, please explain how your sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance causes you to object to the COVID-19 vaccine compared to other vaccines you have received."

Employees also were asked to provide supporting documentation, such as an immunization history consistent with their religious beliefs, written religious materials describing their beliefs, and statements from religious leaders or practitioners who have observed their adherence to beliefs.

“Who is it that gets to decide whether or I not I have a religious exemption?" said Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell. “I mean, who's playing God here?"

Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, told lawmakers the universities would lose hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and contracts if they failed to comply with the federal mandate.

“With the aggressive timeline nature of this, we're learning as we go as well," Flanders said. “And so we're just doing our best to make it so that we can retain these contracts."

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, encouraged the Board of Regents to take a look at the religious exemption forms used by universities to make sure they weren't too invasive.

“It would be nice to perhaps see this process simplified, because I don't think that the employees should be asked some of these questions," Landwehr said."

Brant Laue, solicitor general for the Kansas Attorney General's Office, said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided guidance to employers on evaluating a claim of religious exemption.

Employers shouldn't question a sincerely held religious belief unless they have information that is inconsistent with an employee's claim, Laue said. The refusal to get vaccinated must be based on a religious belief and not because of a political belief or a matter of conscience.

“It's fair to say that it is a delicate process, but it's one that has to occur consistent with the law," Laue said.

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