Parent doesn’t want popular Potter books read aloud in schools

By ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writer

SNOHOMISH — A Snohomish mother doesn’t want teachers reading to students about the exploits of Harry Potter, whose weird world of wizardry has made him a New York Times best-selling book character among adults and children.

Laurie Berg, who has two boys in elementary school, brought her case before a district advisory panel Monday, arguing that the series of four Potter books promotes the witchcraft religion of Wicca.

Berg failed to sway the district’s curriculum materials committee but the group did agree to recommend that teachers reading Potter notify parents and allow students an alternative activity if they object.

Committee members didn’t believe the books proselytize any specific religion.

Berg isn’t asking that the books be removed from the libraries. Rather, she does not want them read aloud to children, promoted in libraries or around schools through posters and discussion.

Written by Briton J.K. Rowling, the books tell the story of a young boy learning to become a wizard while growing up at a magical school called Hogwartsc School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Some parents and religious groups across the United States have objected to its being read in schools, saying the depiction of magic will tempt impressionable young people to explore Wicca or paganism and plant a seed of interest in the occult.

They point to descriptions of spells, potions and riding broomsticks.

Conversely, Harry Potter has become a poster child for encouraging children to read for pleasure through its imaginative narrative and detail. It is a book, some teachers report, that captivates readers of all abilities.

One handout the committee reviewed Monday was a recommendation from Christianity Today to read Harry Potter.

"The literary witchcraft of the Harry Potter series has almost no resemblance to the I-am-God mumbo jumbo of Wiccan circles," it said. "Author J.K. Rowling has created a world with real good and evil, and Harry is definitely on the side of light fighting the ‘dark powers.’ "

Regardless, the debate in Snohomish is by no means an isolated one. The Center for Intellectual Freedom said the Potter series ranked 48th on the list it compiled of the nation’s Top 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990 and 1999.

Su Hickenbottom, a Totem Falls Elementary fifth-grade teacher on the curriculum committee, said six students in her class reported reading all four books and three-quarters of her students have read at least one. None mentioned anything about witchcraft, she said.

Pat Benefiel, a parent on the curriculum committee who attends a fundamentalist church, said she worried about the precedent that could be set if Harry Potter were precluded from books that teachers read aloud. At the same time, she wanted to make sure parents were given a choice.

"There are thousands of Christian parents out there who don’t want their children to read it," she said. "I really think we should respect that."

To Berg, many events in the Harry Potter books represent practices of Wicca, which is recognized by U.S. courts and the Internal Revenue Service as a religion.

"My objections are based on the legalities of sharing and promoting faith in a particular religion," she wrote in her request to have the books not read aloud in class. "That cannot be done in U.S. public schools. Opinions matter, but I believe the district is mandated by law to be tolerant of all faiths, validate all and not promote any above another.

"If Harry Potter had been enrolled in Sunday school and learned about Jesus’ salvation and the gifts of the spirit, then went out laying hands on the sick and praying for people to exercise his spiritual power, I do not believe teachers would be reading these books aloud," she said. "It’s the same principal, just faith in another religion."

Afterward, Berg said: "I am really happy they decided to do something. I think it’s a positive step, and parents will have somewhat of a choice. It shows there is some concern."

The panel’s recommendation goes to school district Superintendent Neal Powell.

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