June 2003 Church & State | People & Events

Students in Cedarville, Ark., will be able to continue reading about the adventures of wizard-in-training Harry Potter, thanks to a recent federal court ruling.

U.S. District Judge Jimm Larry Hendren on April 22 ordered the Cedarville School District to make the Potter books available for general circulation in school libraries. The ruling overturned an action of the Cedarville School Board, which voted 3-2 last year to require students to obtain a parent\'s permission to check out the books.

The Harry Potter series is a runaway bestseller that deals with a wizard-training school and other fantasy elements common in children\'s literature. However, it has sparked a censorship campaign by some Christian fundamentalists who claim the works, authored by J.K. Rowling, might lead youngsters into the occult.

According to the Fort Smith South­west Times Record, Cedarville parent Angie Haney complained about the Potter books after her pastor at the Uniontown Assembly of God offered a series of sermons about witchcraft and satanic cults. The pastor of the church, Mark Hodges, is also a member of the Cedarville School Board and voted for restricting student access to the books. According to Haney, the Potter series is a "starting place to learn witchcraft, sorcery and other satanic ideas."

Judge Hendren ruled that the school district must "return the books known as \'the Harry Potter books\' to its library shelves, where they can be accessed without any restrictions other than those administrative restrictions that apply to all works of fiction in the libraries of the district."

Hendren\'s ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Billy Ray and Mary Counts, Cedarville parents, who argued that the school board action violated their daughter\'s constitutional rights.

After the books were challenged, school officials formed a 15-member committee to examine the Potter tomes and make a recommendation about them. The committee voted unanimously to retain the books, but the school board voted to remove them anyway.

A group of free-speech and constitutional rights groups, including Ameri­cans United, filed a friend-of-the-court-brief calling on the court to overturn the school board\'s restriction. Groups that signed onto the brief included the Association of American Publishers, the Center for First Amendment Rights, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the Stu­dent Press Law Center and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. The popular, but frequently censored, author Judy Blume also joined the brief.

"This court has rescued Harry Potter from the clutches of religious hysteria," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "Instead of waving a magic wand, the judge waved the Constitution. In America, that\'s more than enough."

Hendren ruled that school board members had improperly restricted access to the books "because of their shared belief that the books promote a particular religion."

"Regardless of the personal distaste with which these individuals regard \'witchcraft,\' it is not properly within their power and authority as members of defendant\'s school board to prevent the students at Cedarville from reading about it, " Hendren held.

Asked to comment on the ruling, school board member Jerry Shelly, who voted to restrict the books, said simply, "Ain\'t no comment on it."