AUSTIN, TEXAS (AP) - Eight Planned Parenthood organizations sued Texas on Wednesday for excluding them from participating in a program that provides contraception and check-ups to women, saying the new rule violates their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association.
The groups, none of which provide abortions, contend in the federal lawsuit that a new state law banning organizations affiliated with abortion providers from participating in the Women's Health Program has nothing to do with providing medical care and is simply intended to silence individuals or groups who support abortion rights. Texas law already requires that groups receiving federal or state funding be legally and financially separate from clinics that perform abortions.
"The government cannot condition your participation in the health services on giving up your free speech," said Pete Shenkken, the plaintiffs' attorney, citing past U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
The federal government has also cut funding to Texas over the issue, saying it violated federal law. It says the state law passed by conservative Republicans and signed by Gov. Rick Perry last year denies women the right to choose their health care providers.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which enforces the rule, issued a statement saying it believes the state was within its rights to pass the new law. Last month, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services demanding that it restore off funding for the Women's Health program.
"Federal law gives states the right and responsibility to establish criteria for Medicaid providers, so we're on firm legal ground," the statement said. "We'll continue to work with the Attorney General's Office to fully enforce state law and continue federal funding for the Women's Health Program."
Republican lawmakers made it clear during last year's legislative session that their aim was to shut down as many Planned Parenthood groups as possible. The new law says that a health care provider that shares a name, common ownership or a franchise agreement with any organization that provides elective abortions will be excluded from the program, regardless of whether the provider meets all medical standards.
Shenkken said the First and 14th Amendments of the Constitution prevent states from punishing groups for their political views or associations by excluding them from programs in which they are otherwise qualified to participate.
The Planned Parenthood groups have asked the federal court in Austin to block the state from enforcing the law before April 30, when those clinics would lose all funding under the new rule.
Patricio Gonzalez, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Hidalgo County, said his organization currently cares for 6,500 women and would have to shut down two or three of its four clinics if the rule is enforced. South Texas is home to some of the poorest women in the nation.
"We are the largest health care provider for women in our region," he said. "We know there aren't any other providers in the region that can absorb 6,500 women as of May 1."
The Department of Health and Human Services has said it will try to recruit additional health care providers to make up for those lost under the new rule.