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The Separation of "Harry Potter" and State

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For this reason society requires that the education of youth should be watched with the most scrupulous attention. Education is a great measurer, forms the moral character of men and morals are the basis of government. Noah Webster, 1758-1843

Public school parents, do you know what your children’s teachers are reading to them in school? Do you know what’s being promoted during and after school in the fund-raising book fairs? Is your child now involved in pagan games and fantasy projects because even the principal is "wild about Harry" (Potter, that is)?

National syndicated columnist Mona Charen ( recently highlighted many of the concerns parents have raised around the nation regarding the hit book series about an eleven year old wizard and his adventures learning and applying his newly discovered sorcery heritage and its powers.  Though not her stated intention, author J.K. Rowling is fast becoming a virtual Pied Piper for the modern versions of neo-pagan religion. Her clever books draw children to the Potter arena of wizardry and its promises of empowerment. For today’s cyber-smart kids, the Internet and chat rooms bridge the gap easily between the fantasy in the books and the reality of today’s practitioners of the magic arts. As Charen pointed out, some of that activity unfortunately includes the darker and more dangerous practices that accompany witchcraft, Satanism and other occult belief systems growing in popularity today.

However, Ms. Charen missed identifying the main arena of the strongest concerns, at least the arena Family Friendly Libraries keeps hearing from – not the public square or the public school libraries as she mentioned, but the public school classroom, a very different situation legally speaking. In answer to the question, "Should ‘Harry Potter’ Go to Public School?" We say "No" to the classroom and "Yes, with provisions" to the school library and school building after school hours, and here is why:

Though Harry’s adventures are obviously not religious instruction books, they employ heavy use of Wicca symbolism, language and themes. Wicca is now granted IRS status as a religion and the Department of Defense supplies chaplains for Wiccan folks serving in the U.S. military forces. "Harry Potter" is to Wicca what "Adventures in Odyssey" or "McGee and Me" (fanciful Focus on the Family videos and books) are to the Christian religion. "Harry" on the school library shelf and in the halls after school reflects a legally tolerable situation; promotion of Harry through school day book sales and teacher oral reading sessions is something else entirely.

In addition to teachers reading Harry’s adventures aloud, a growing number of principals around the country are also approving long term fantasy projects in which their students are asked to come to school dressed as witches and wizards or play games assuming those roles. What would the civil libertarian crowd do if the requirements were instead to dress as nuns and priests or the twelve Apostles of Jesus?

Fantasy or not, books, tapes, games and other props involving witches and warlocks have no more right to promotion by public school teachers and administrators than entertainment materials promoting majority religions that have been carefully cleansed from the school day.

Simply offering objecting parents the choice of opting their children out creates an undeserved ostracizing situation. Instead, the laws, which have been interpreted for decades to disallow the official school promotion of one religious belief over another, must be applied fairly and consistently, not set aside or forgotten only in the case of popular and entertaining paganism.

There are other classroom problems with Harry – vengeful violence and the death culture, (with the promise from the author of more), trashing ordinary family folks vs. elevating sorcery’s men and women, and wasting educational opportunities to introduce time-tested classical works that will be forgotten if ignored vs. hopping on a New York Times bestsellers bandwagon. Still, the religion issue is the main legal problem that is being belittled or ignored.

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In contrast, the school library and halls can be more inclusive and accommodate all the parents, including the Potter fans. Library materials relating to the top two family-sensitive topics, sexuality and religion, can easily be listed and offered through notices and simple permits similar to forms parents already sign for sex-ed classes, school trips and other extracurricular activities. To maximize parental supervision at school book fairs, sales could be restricted to after school hours and can include evening and weekend school-community events. These considerations honor parental authority, especially over subjects fraught with questions of values and belief systems sacred to the home and family of each child.

Preserving parental rights and school-home trust requires only a little more paperwork and effort than charging ahead thoughtlessly for fun and profit. A consistent application of the law regarding religion in the classroom and common sense policies reflecting sensitivity outside the classroom is essential to that trust.

If you don’t know how your public school system is handling this matter, you should. School respect for parental authority and religious influence as an absolute sphere of the home must be upheld, even when that principle is challenged by a history making children’s book series perched high on the New York Times bestseller list.

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Last Updated On: 04/12/2000