What does Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott have in common with Mark Phariss, one of the plaintiffs who sued the state to challenge its gay marriage ban?
They were law school classmates. They knew each other. Phariss tells KERA they were good friends.
And now the attorney general and Phariss, an attorney who lives in Plano with his long-time partner, are on opposite sides of Texas’ brewing battle over gay marriage.
Phariss told KERA Thursday morning that during law school at Vanderbilt, he discussed politics over dinner with Abbott and his wife. Phariss is a Democrat, Abbott a Republican.
Phariss also says he flew to Abbott’s bedside in 1984 when Abbott was hit by a falling tree limb and paralyzed.
They haven’t talked in about 10 years, but they exchange Christmas cards.
“He was a very good friend then and I consider him a very good friend now,” Phariss told KERA.
The attorney told KERA that he thinks highly of Abbott as a person. Phariss said he didn’t want to say anything negative about Abbott, the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate.
“I disagree with his decision to pursue the appeal and I disagree with his take on what the status of the law is," Phariss said. "But I don’t take it personally.”
A spokesman with the Abbott campaign said Thursday he was traveling and unavailable, but later emailed a statement confirming the friendship:
"Cecilia and I were, indeed, friends with Mark Phariss," the statement read. "We remember Mark from our law school days and his early days as a lawyer in San Antonio. We remain grateful that Mark visited the hospital during the trying time after my injury. As I said yesterday, there are good, well-meaning people on both sides of this issue. This shows that Americans can in fact debate substantial issues without being disagreeable."
Plaintiff and defendant, but friends
In Wednesday’s court ruling, a federal judge declared that Texas’ same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional but left the ban in place for now. The ruling lists Phariss as one of the plaintiffs and Abbott as one of the defendants.
Phariss says he attended Vanderbilt Law School with Abbott. Biographies for both Phariss and Abbott show they attended Vanderbilt; Abbott earned his juris doctorate degree in 1984, while Phariss got his in 1985.
Phariss and his partner, Victor Holmes, filed the lawsuit, along with a couple from Austin. Phariss and Holmes said the state's ban unconstitutionally denied them the fundamental right to marry because of their sexual orientation.
Phariss reflected on his Vanderbilt days with Abbott.
“Greg and I, frequently with his wife, would have dinner and talk as law students are inclined to do, talk law and politics and that’s what we did,” Phariss told KERA. “We continued that friendship even after he graduated from law school. He was a year ahead of me.”
In 1984, when a tree limb fell on Abbott, Phariss was clerking for a law firm in Tulsa.
“I flew down to be by his side with his wife and his mother,” Phariss said.
Abbott offers measured response
Abbott opposes legalizing same-sex marriage. He is appealing Wednesday’s ruling. After the decision, Abbott offered a measured response in a statement: “This is an issue on which there are good, well-meaning people on both sides. And, as the lower court acknowledged today, it’s an issue that will ultimately be resolved by a higher court.”
Abbott continued: “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that states have the authority to define and regulate marriage. The Texas Constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman. If the Fifth Circuit honors those precedents, then today’s decision should be overturned and the Texas Constitution will be upheld.”