A member of a screening panel at the heart of a controversy about religion abruptly resigned Tuesday.
Louis Araneta said his comments during the discussion of the nomination of Christopher Gleason to the Independent Redistricting Commission “were misinterpreted to infer that I was not in support of Mr. Gleason’s application because of his religious beliefs.’’ Araneta, an attorney and former Maricopa County Superior Court judge, said that wasn’t the case.
But Araneta said the damage had been done, with legislative leaders claiming he and other members of the screening panel were discriminating against Gleason because of his membership in a Christian group dedicated to spiritual renewal.
“I deeply love this state and in no way want my comments to be a distraction,’’ Araneta said in a letter to Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca Berch.
The move, however, did not end the controversy.
Hours later, top legislative leaders called on Berch to reconvene the screening panel and vote again.
None of that guarantees a different outcome when the 14 remaining members of the screening panel meet.
They still are required to nominate 10 Republicans for two GOP posts on the redistricting commission out of 15 semi-finalists who were interviewed. Gleason was one of the five whose names fell off the bottom of the list.
House Speaker Kirk Adams of Mesa declined to say what he would do if another meeting still resulted in the failure to nominate Gleason. But Senate President-elect Russell Pearce, also of Mesa, said he remains suspicious of anything the screening panel now does, even without Araneta, because of what was said at the earlier meeting.
“You can’t put the horse back in the corral,’’ he said.
The chances of Gleason being nominated in a new meeting remain unclear. Mohave County Attorney Bill Ekstrom, a member of the screening panel, said most of those on the committee had pretty much made up their minds who they liked before Araneta’s comments.
Gleason, in his resume, listed his civic activities as including 4-Tucson, including the organization’s mission statement “to serve as a catalyst to engage the Christian Community in the needs and dreams of Tucson to bring about spiritual renewal and prosperity to the glory of God’’ to make Tucson one of the most livable cities in the world.
The question of his religion did not come up when he was interviewed by the screening panel last week. But when panel members later discussed the applicants, Araneta said he was concerned whether Gleason would be able to separate issues of church and state.
Gleason, at a press conference Tuesday at the Capitol, said he was only “mildly disappointed’’ about not being nominated. But he pointed out that the screening panel that is choosing nominees for the Independent Redistricting Commission is the same one that interviews and nominates judges for the Arizona Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeals.
“As a citizen I am far more concerned that a belief-based litmus test is even possible’’ on a panel that reviews judicial applicants. “This certainly is not the meaning of separation of church and state.’’
Araneta did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. But in his resignation letter, he said his comments were not designed to question Gleason’s religious views.
“My intent was to convey the importance of an applicant’s ability to separate spiritual views from civic duties,’’ he wrote. Araneta said that fits with the goal of screening applicants for the redistricting commission who will make their decisions in an independent and impartial fashion.
The commission is constitutionally charged with dividing the state every 10 years into 30 legislative districts with equal population while trying to respect communities of interest and comply with federal voting rights laws. It also will draw the lines for what will be nine — and possibly 10 — congressional districts after new Census data is released later this month.
Pearce pointed out there is no specific language in the U.S. Constitution requiring separation of church and state. Instead, it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’’
“It’s a one-way road,’’ he said. “They intended government not to prescribe religion, they meant government not to dictate that certain religions take priority.’’