March 2002 Church & State | Featured

Robert Fichthorn had decided to take a stand.

Fichthorn, captain of the Penryn, Pa., "fire police," a volunteer body that provides traffic control services during fires, auto accidents and civic events, declared in late January that his officers would not help cordon off streets during a YMCA-sponsored triathlon scheduled for this September.

Fichthorn's reason surprised many in the community. Despite its Christian roots, Fichthorn asserted, the YMCA is in fact supporting witchcraft by allowing students taking part in an after-school program to read the popular "Harry Potter" books. The fire police would do nothing, he insisted, to aid this nefarious behavior.

"I don't feel right taking our children's minds and teaching them [witchcraft]," Fichthorn hold the Lancaster New Era. "As long as we don't stand up, it won't stop."

Fichthorn's declaration hit the local papers and promptly sparked an uproar in the tiny central Pennsylvania community. But things really got interesting after the story was circulated nationally by the Associated Press and spread worldwide over the Internet. Irate residents squared off in letters to the editor. YMCA officials were swamped with messages from all over the country and even overseas as people offered to stand in for the fire police.

Newspaper columnists blasted Fichthorn and the rest of his department as narrow-minded and silly. Sports Illustrated cited the flap as "This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse." The Denver Post gave Fichthorn its "Doofus of the Month" award.

Many in the community and surrounding area were not pleased with the attention. "Yes, all across the country, people are reading about the Penryn Fire Police decision to spurn the triathlon because Harry Potter goes against their Christian morals," groused Gil Smart, a columnist with the Lancaster Sunday News. "And all across the country, people are thinking: What bumpkins."

But if the Penryn Fire Police are bumpkins for hating Harry Potter, they are not the only ones. All over the country, Religious Right groups and local activists have put the Potter series in their theological crosshairs. The Penryn incident captured national headlines, but it is in no way an aberration.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), the Potter series, authored by Scottish writer J.K. Rowling, now holds the dubious distinction of being the most censored books in America. Public schools and libraries in many communities are under siege as far-right forces demand that the books be removed outright or placed on restricted access.

At first glance, the books look like unlikely candidates for all this fuss. Designed for pre- and early teens, the series recounts the adventures of Harry Potter, an orphan growing up in London. Verbally abused and forced to live in a dingy space at his domineering uncle's house, Potter's fortunes take a dramatic turn for the better when he learns he is descended from a long line of wizards and is invited to attend Hogwarts, a private academy for wizards in training.

The series is phenomenally popular, and the four books so far have sold in the millions worldwide. Late last year, a movie based on the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, opened to long lines and generally favorable reviews.

But not everyone is wild about Harry. Religious Right forces, including TV preacher Pat Robertson's "700 Club," James Dobson's Focus on the Family, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition and a host of far-right lesser lights are convinced that the books promote evil and the occult and they are spurring local activists to drive the books from public schools and libraries.

A sampling of recent incidents includes:

York, Pa.: Led by a local pastor who is also an elementary school teacher, a handful of parents demanded that the Harry Potter books be removed from the Eastern York schools, asserting that the tomes promote witchcraft. "It's against my daughter's constitution, it's evil and it promotes witchcraft," parent Deb Eugenio told reporters. "I'm not paying taxes to teach my child witchcraft."

The school board voted 7-2 in January to allow teachers to continue to use the Potter books provided that parents first sign permission slips. Sixth-grade teacher Ed Althouse had been using the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, during a unit on fantasy literature. The parents of four students declined to sign the permission slips, and their children were given an alternate assignment.

Alamogordo, N.M.: In an incident that captured headlines worldwide, Pastor Jack Brock of the Christ Community Church led a mass burning of Harry Potter books Dec. 30. Brock told reporters that the books "encourage our youth to learn more about witches, warlocks and sorcerers, and those things are an abomination to God and to me." For good measure, Brock also tossed a copy of The Collected Works of William Shakespeare on the bonfire.

Duvall County, Fla.: Parent Mendy Robinson challenged the Potter books at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, insisting that they are "turning children to lies & falsehoods of this present world." A committee of teachers, parents and libraries in October spurned a request that the Potter books be removed from school library shelves. Students had to get parental permission to read the books while the committee deliberated the matter.

Oskaloosa, Kan.: The board of directors of the local public library voted to cancel a Harry Potter-themed event after some fundamentalists complained. The library had planned a reading program in June for "aspiring young witches and wizards" featuring a storyteller who had appeared at other Kansas libraries. The board voted to cancel the program after a handful of residents complained that the program promoted witchcraft.

Fargo, N.D.: Officials at Agassiz Middle School in November cancelled a planned field trip to the Harry Potter movie after a few parents, backed by a local right-wing radio talk-show host, denounced the outing. School officials took the action even though all of the students, aged between 12 and 15, had received parental permission.

"It's a little bizarre," Fargo School Superintendent David Flowers said. "We believe that we were on firm ground in letting the kids go, but [the school] made the decision...that they would just as soon not be embroiled in controversy."

Copley Township, Ohio: Library Coordinator Cathy Hall of the Copley-Fairlawn School District recommend in January that the district stop buying books in the Potter series. The system's library currently has two of the four Potter books, and Hall said she believes no more titles from the series should be added.

Hall told the Akron Beacon Journal that she made the recommendation primarily on the basis of financial concerns but then went on to say she was "also keeping in mind those things that are being said about the book."

Modesto, Calif.: The Rev. B. Joseph Mannion has called on "religious parents" to keep the Potter books out of local public schools. In a Dec. 29 letter to the Modesto Bee, Mannion wrote, "The Harry Potter books are evil. They are based on evil: witchcraft, wizardry and the occult."

Lewiston, Maine: The Rev. Doug Taylor announced plans to hold a book burning of the Potter tomes in a community park in November. Taylor, head of a local organization called the Jesus Party, applied for a permit to hold a bonfire in the park but was turned down by the Lewiston Fire Department. Instead, he cut up a Potter book with a pair of scissors and tossed it into a trashcan.

Maine newspapers reported that a minister from Portland who attended the event to support Taylor confronted members of a pro-Potter contingent mounting a counter-protest. "Some of you young people," the minister said, "should take a look at where you're going. Hell is a very bad place."

Jacksonville, Fla.: Officials with the city's public library system dropped a plan to distribute "Hogwarts certificates" to encourage youngsters to read after a local resident, John Miesburg, complained that the books promoted "the evil of witchcraft." Librarians at the Regency Library did distribute some of the certificates in July of 2000 but stopped after attorneys with the Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, threatened to sue. Mathew Staver, head of the Liberty Counsel, insisted that the library's plan violated church-state separation.

Zeeland, Mich.: A long-running dispute over the Potter books has culminated in the resignation of a school board president. Tom Bock stepped down after repeatedly butting heads with Mary Dana, a middle school teacher who protested a 1999 vote by the board to ban the Potter books.

The restrictions were later lifted, but Bock and Dana continued sparring over the matter. Bock resigned after school administrators turned down his demands that Dana be removed from her position as a mentor to new teachers, reported the Grand Rapids Press.

These incidents are just a few of the recent challenges to the Potter books. According to the ALA, which tracks incidents of censorship nationwide, Rowling's books have been the most challenged works in public school libraries and public libraries for three years running.

Beverly Becker, associate director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, has noticed a common theme among the complaints. "It's always witchcraft," Becker told Church & State. "Occasionally they throw something else in, but ultimately these challenges are all about witchcraft."

Becker points out that the ALA noted a dramatic upswing in the challenges in October of 1999, when Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was published. Becker said this was probably due to increased media attention.

"When the third book came out," she said, "the publicity went crazy. I think that's when every adult heard about the books, not just the ones who had a 10- or 12-year-old at home." Becker notes that more public schools began using the books at that time as well.

As sales climbed, Religious Right groups went into a frenzy. Some of the charges they have lobbed against the books seem too fantastic to believe, but millions of Religious Right activists around the country are now apparently convinced that the Potter series is part of a plot to lure youngsters into Wiccan groups.

High-profile TV preacher Robertson launched a full-scale assault on the Potter books late last year. On the Dec. 5 "700 Club," cohost Terry Meeuwsen interviewed Caryl Matrisciana, identified as an "expert on the occult" and producer of a video titled "Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged."

In fact, Matrisciana is the wife of Pat Matrisciana, a long-time far-right political operative who made his living during much of the 1990s peddling conspiracy-theory videos attacking President Bill Clinton, most notably "The Clinton Chronicles." During the CBN interview, Caryl Matrisciana asserted that Rowling based the books on "the religions of Celtic, druidic, Satanic, Wiccan and pagan roots and written them into her fiction books for children."

Asserted Matrisciana, "The harm is first of all that witchcraft is being normalized to our children. For the first time in the history of the world, witchcraft is being given to children in a children's format, and children are seeing other children practicing it and say it's all right."

Following the interview, Robertson felt moved to offer his own comments. Glaring sternly into the cameras, Robertson told the audience that God will turn his back on nations that tolerate witchcraft with dire consequences.

"Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have been talking about God lifting his anointing and his mantle from the United States of America," Robertson said. "And if you read in Deuteronomy or Leviticus, actually, the eighteenth chapter, there's certain things that he says that is going to cause the Lord, or the land, to vomit you out. At the head of the list is witchcraft....Now we're welcoming this and teaching our children. And what we're doing is asking for the wrath of God to come on this country....And if there's ever a time we need God's blessing it's now. We don't need to be bringing in heathen, pagan practices to the United States of America."

(Strangely enough, a series of anti-Potter articles on the CBN website disappeared not long after Robertson's outburst. This may be due to the fact that ABC/Disney, which now owns the cable channel that carries the "700 Club," recently purchased the rights to broadcast the first Potter movie on television.)

Other Religious Right groups were quick to join the anti-Potter bandwagon.

"Is Harry Potter a Harmless Fantasy or a Wicca Training Program?" blared a recent press released issued by Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition. Sheldon, one of the Religious Right's most vociferous gay bashers, even tried to link the Potter series to homosexuality, writing, "While the themes in Harry Potter books do not expressly advocate homosexuality or abortion, these are the philosophical beliefs deeply embedded in Wicca. The child who is seduced into Wicca witchcraft through Harry Potter books will eventually be introduced to these other concepts."

TV preacher D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries is also promoting the alleged Potter-Wicca connection. In late October, Kennedy interviewed Richard Abanes, a self-proclaimed "expert on the occult" and author of the anti-Potter tome Harry Potter and the Bible.

Appearing on Kennedy's "Truths That Transform" radio show, Abanes asserted that as a result of the Potter books, Wiccan groups in England are flooded with new members. The leading Wiccan group in the United Kingdom, Abanes told Kennedy, has had to hire a youth minister.

Series author Rowling, Abanes asserted, "has had a fascination with the occult and witchcraft and wizardry every since she was a little girl. And so, her creativity, her talent, when she wrote something, that came out on the page I'm not sure she actually meant to draw kids into the occult, but that's indeed what's already happening, especially in England."

The Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association has also attacked Rowling's books and the film version of the first volume. In November the AFA's website (www.afa.net) posted an article by "contributing columnist" Berit Kjos, whose ministry has made attacking Potter into a cottage industry. The article, titled "Twelve Reasons Not to See the Harry Potter Movie," asserted that the film presents witchcraft as an appealing alternative lifestyle.

Wrote Kjos, "This pagan ideology comes complete with trading cards, computer and other wizardly games, clothes and decorations stamped with [Harry Potter] symbols, action figures and cuddly dolls and audio cassettes that could keep the child's minds (sic) focused on the occult all day and into night. But in God's eyes, such paraphernalia become little more than lures and doorways to deeper involvement with the occult."

(Wildmon, whose AFA is based in Tupelo, Miss., is best known for attempting to censor television programs. Last month he joined 14 other groups in petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to demand the removal of an award-winning drama series, "Boston Public," from the Fox Network.)

Falwell has also recommended caution. Falwell's National Liberty Journal noted late last year "that there does appear to be a legitimate reason to be cautious in regard to Harry Potter" and asserted, "Even if the author's intent is anything but evil, the attractive presentation of witchcraft and wizardry both ultimately godless pursuits may desensitize children to important spiritual issues."

The unbylined piece, however, does note that some conservative Christians see no danger in the Potter books and adds, "Harry Potter is not worth causing a major schism within the church." (Falwell may have good reasons for not launching a full-scale assault on the Potter series. In 1999, he became the target of international ridicule after warning parents that a character named Tinky Winky from the PBS children's series "Teletubbies," is gay.)

Rowling, who wrote the first Potter book while struggling to keep her head above water as a single mom, has called the assertions that her books seek to lure youngsters into the occult "absurd." In one interview she observed, "I have met thousands of children now, and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, 'Ms. Rowling, I'm so glad I've read these books because now I want to be a witch.'"

Many experts on education and children's literature agree that the books are unlikely to draw children into the occult. They note that witches, fairies, dragons and other mythical beasts have a long lineage in stories aimed at young readers. Witches are a staple in Grimm's Fairy Tales, which date back to the Middle Ages and remain popular today. In the Grimm Brothers' tales, as in the Potter books today, good triumphs over evil in the end. Such stories usually end up teaching simple moral lessons that youngsters can readily understand.

None of this has slowed down the censors one iota. And, with three more books in the Potter series on the horizon and more film adaptions on the way anti-censorship activists expect to see more efforts to ban the Potter series and others. (According to the ALA, the most common targets of censorship in America for the period 1990-2000 include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, The Witches by Roald Dahl and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.)

Officials at the ALA recommend that both public school libraries and public libraries have clear policies in place for dealing with censorship attempts. They advocate review committees that can examine challenged books and say it's essential that everyone involved in the committee and the larger effort actually read the book under challenge. These policies, ALA staffers say, can avoid a rush to judgment.

"That allows for a fair hearing, so everyone can cool down," says the ALA's Becker. "The decision is not made in such an emotional moment."

Given time, many censorship efforts collapse in the face of counter mobilization by concerned community members or just fail because the charges against a book are preposterous. This was often the case 100 years ago when efforts were made to censor another children's book featuring witches L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Outraged Oz fans stepped forward to defend the book, turning back some censorship efforts. (See "Lions And Tigers And Censors Oh, My!," page 11.)

An echo of that long-ago struggle was heard in central Pennsylvania recently during the incident in Penryn. Laura Montgomery Rutt, director of the Alliance for Tolerance and Freedom in Lancaster, which keeps tabs on the Religious Right locally, said community sentiment is running solidly against the fire police. Many people in the area, she said, think the fire police are being silly.

"People here are not supporting the decision of the fire police," she said. "And their actions have helped the YMCA. People are volunteering and saying they want to help. No one knew about the triathlon before this happened. Now they are volunteering to help run it even people from other states."

Lancaster County is a conservative area, Rutt said, but that doesn't mean residents support censorship. "The community has seen and learned that extremism is not going to win," Rutt told Church & State. "This shows that even the guys in the fire police are going beyond what Lancaster County is willing to put up with. We've also seen that the community is willing to rally when an organization shows it is intolerant. So many have spoken out on behalf of the Potter books. A lot of people have a tendency to stay in their shells, but this was just too much. All in all, this was kind of a good thing. It really rallied the troops."