Appeals court to review Texas laws on abortion, gay marriage

By PAUL J. WEBER
Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- While promises to cut taxes and fight President Barack Obama helped bring Texas Republicans sweeping election victories, two symbols of conservatism in the state are now on potentially shaky ground: tougher abortion restrictions and prohibitions on gay marriage.

A busy week for two signature Texas laws signed by outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry begins Wednesday when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans considers whether the state can maintain its ban on same-sex marriage and impose rigid standards on abortion providers.

Texas is coming off losses in both cases. A federal judge in San Antonio ruled last February that the state's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional -- but left the law in place pending appeal. In the other case, dozens of abortion clinics forced to shutter under a 2013 law won a temporary reprieve in October from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both gay-rights groups and abortion-rights organizations are embracing that momentum before facing what is widely considered to be among the most conservative appeals courts in the U.S.

"It's not the best panel for us," said Whole Woman's Health founder Amy Hagstrom Miller, who operates three facilities in Texas that provide abortions. "I think we're really facing a referendum of undue burden. How far is too far for women to travel to exercise a constitutional right?"

First up before the court are oral arguments Wednesday over state abortion restrictions that require clinics to meet hospital-level operating standards. On Friday, the panel will then tackle the gay marriage ban in Texas, which remains one of 14 states where same-sex couple cannot marry.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, the former attorney general, and other Republicans want the court to allow the state to enforce the new abortion restrictions. A ruling supporting the laws would leave only eight abortion providers in the nation's second-most populous state.

Seventeen abortion clinics currently operate in Texas, but if the law is upheld, more than half would close because those facilities lack operating rooms or other costly additions. Texas had more than 40 abortion clinics in 2012, but many closed under a separate new requirement that doctors who perform abortions have hospital admitting privileges.

Although last year saw a wave of federal judges strike down bans on same-sex marriage across the U.S., conservative states have been more successful preserving restrictions on abortion.

"Just counting the number of laws passed by state legislatures, it's been quite remarkable," said Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life. "And Texas has been a very notable part of that trend."

On Monday, Florida became the latest state where same-sex marriages are now legal. Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate whose son George P. Bush is now the new Texas state land commissioner, said the ruling by a circuit court judge should be respected.

Texas leaders have so far been more defiant. But Mark Phariss, who is among the Texas couples suing the state over its ban, said he is encouraged by what he sees as a change in the political tone.

Whereas the vast majority of Republican candidates touted anti-abortion credentials while campaigning, opposition to same-sex marriage was less of a headline issue. Phariss is a former law school friend of Abbott and said his remarks have been respectful, even as Perry's successor has vowed to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage.

But Phariss would more like to see a court victory.

"I'm not going to say there's not a little bit of envy," Phariss said of states where same-sex marriage is now legal. "There's a lot of envy."

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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