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Greg Abbott Faces Law School Friend As Plaintiff In Same-Sex Marriage Suit

Mark Phariss, left, and Victor Holmes of Plano filed suit to end the ban on same-sex marriage in Texas. Phariss is a law school friend of Attorney General Greg Abbott, who's defending the state.

Friends from decades ago are at the center of the emotionally-charged, legal battle over same-sex marriage in Texas. 

But they’re on opposite sides.

Plano attorney Mark Phariss is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to a federal judge ruling Wednesday that Texas' ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.

Greg Abbott, the state attorney general and candidate for governor, is defending the ban and has filed notice he’ll appeal the judge’s ruling.

Phariss and Abbott were law school classmates. They know each other. Phariss tells KERA they were good friends.

Phariss and Victor Holmes, his partner of 16 years, were in a San Antonio hotel suite when they learned by text message that Judge Orlando Garcia had ruled in favor of their lawsuit. While the judge declared that Texas’ same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional,he left the ban in place for now.

“I started to cry,” said Phariss, recalling the moment in an interview with KERA.

Credit LinkedIn
Mark Phariss tells KERA that he flew to Greg Abbott’s bedside in 1984 when Abbott was hit by a falling tree limb and paralyzed. The two have exchanged Christmas cards since.

“I’m not a crier. I only cry at funerals,” he said.  “It was an emotion so bottled up I didn’t know it was there.  Just to hear the words that we could potentially, finally get married.”

But standing in the way is Greg Abbott, the  Republican gubernatorial candidate who's leading the state's efforts to defend the gay marriage ban -- and one of Phariss’ friends from Vanderbilt Law School.

Phariss says he was always a Democrat and Abbott a Republican, which made for lively law school conversations in the early 1980s.

“Greg and I, frequently with his wife, would have dinner and would talk as law students are inclined to do, talk law and politics," Phariss said. 

After Abbott is paralyzed, Phariss visits him

Abbott earned his juris doctorate degree in 1984, while Phariss got his in 1985. Phariss says he wasn’t "out” about being gay at the time. Pharris says he and Abbott stayed in contact after Abbott graduated.

In 1984, when a tree fell on Abbott while jogging, leaving him paralyzed, Phariss scrambled to be with him in a Houston hospital.

“I was clerking in a law firm in Tulsa and I flew down to be by his side with his wife and his mother," Phariss told KERA. "He was a very good friend then and I consider him a very good friend now."

Phariss hasn’t talked with Abbott for about 10 years, but they exchange Christmas cards. But Phariss said he's contributed money to at least one of Abbott’s campaigns for Texas Supreme Court justice.

“Greg is a person I would see as a very, very, good judicial candidate,” Phariss said.

Phariss says he is not contributing to Abbott’s campaign for governor and he’s not contributing to the campaign of Abbott's Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis.

“I’m a Democrat, but I’m not going to contribute to a campaign against Greg Abbott," he said. 

They disagree, but Phariss doesn't 'take it personally'

Phariss says the two have exchanged Christmas cards in recent years and he believes Abbott has long known that he’s gay.

“I don’t take it personally that he’s representing the state in this lawsuit," Phariss said. "I disagree with his decision in this lawsuit. I disagree with his decision to pursue the appeal.  And I disagree with his take on what the status of the law is. But I don’t take it personally."

In reacting to the ruling Wednesday, Abbott didn’t criticize the judge. He released a statement that began by noting “there are good, well-meaning people on both sides.”

Did Phariss think the conciliatory tone of that statement was meant for him?

“I don’t know," he told KERA. "I sort of heard it a little bit that he was speaking to me and I appreciated it. If he was speaking to me it was appreciated."

Abbott: 'Good, well-meaning people on both sides'

KERA requested an interview with Abbott Thursday after interviewing Phariss. A campaign spokesman  said he was traveling and unavailable, but later emailed this statement confirming the friendship:

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, said: "Cecilia and I were, indeed, friends with Mark Phariss. 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."

"Cecilia and I were, indeed, friends with Mark Phariss. 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."

Phariss says he can imagine talking with Abbott someday about the ideological differences that have put them on opposite sides of this legal fight.

“I think he would see value in my relationship now," Phariss said. "Whether he would come around on the marriage issue is one to be seen."

But Phariss says his door is always open to renew his friendship with Abbott, and to engage in an old college-style debate, where he’d hope to persuade Abbott he’s wrong about same-sex marriage.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.