By Peg McEntee
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Planned Parenthood's Utah chapter won an initial round in court on Tuesday challenging an attempt by the governor to cut off its funding, with a federal judge ruling that the public's interest favors keeping the women's health organization open.
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups issued a temporary restraining order barring Governor Gary Herbert from carrying out his directive for state agencies to revoke their contracts through which Planned Parenthood receives federal dollars.
Herbert ordered the cut-off citing the recent release of secretly recorded videos that Planned Parenthood's critics say show officials from the group in Texas and other states discussing the illegal sale of aborted fetal tissue.
Anti-abortion activists and their Republican allies in Congress have seized on the videos to challenge Planned Parenthood's continued eligibility for federal funds on Capitol Hill.
Planned Parenthood says the videos have been used to distort the issue of fetal tissue donations the group makes for scientific research, insisting there is nothing unlawful or unethical about the reimbursements it receives to cover the costs of those donations.
Supporters say efforts to defund the group would restrict women's access to reproductive healthcare and disproportionately hurt low-income patients.
The judge echoed that argument in his restraining order, issued after a hearing in Salt Lake City on Planned Parenthood's request to block Herbert's directive.
"The programs carried out by plaintiff target at-risk individuals and the reduction of communicable diseases," he wrote. "These are strong public interests that outweigh the defendants' stated interests in defunding" the group.
The judge also sided with Planned Parenthood in finding "a substantial likelihood" that it would prevail on the merits of its arguments that Herbert, a Republican, had violated its constitutional rights to equal protection and freedom of association.
The plaintiffs were singled out based on their "association with an organization against whom accusations have been made of illegal conduct," the judge said. "Those accusations are still under investigation and have not been proved."
A spokeswoman for the governor, Aimee Edwards, said he "stands by his actions," adding: "Today's procedural action does not deter Governor Herbert's resolve to carry out his directive."
Karrie Gallaway, president of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, accused Herbert of "playing politics with health."
The organization has filed similar legal actions challenging defunding efforts in Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana.
(Reporting by Peg McEntee; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Eric Beech)