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"Witchcraft' gag brews controversy

The public library hosted a party when the latest Harry Potter book was released. It gave out "witchcraft" certificates to 200 young fans of the novel series on the young wizard-in-training.

But what was intended as a gimmick to encourage reading drew the ire of some parents. And a national religious freedom organization threatened to sue.

"We don't want our children to be exposed to witchcraft," said John Miesburg, who teaches his six children at home. "If they are going to pass out witchcraft certificates, they should promote the Bible and pass out certificates of righteousness."

The complaints flabbergasted director Kenneth Sivulich of the Jacksonville Public Library, who nonetheless stopped handing out the certificates.

To celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a branch library hosted a party July 8 featuring a magician and readings by children of their favorite passages from the first three of J.K. Rowling's books.

Children were given a "Hogwarts' Certificate of Accomplishment," for "completion of term in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry." In the books, that's where Harry goes to school.

Miesburg said he first heard about the certificates when Paul Zink, pastor of the New Life Christian Fellowship, complained about them from the pulpit.

"We have read portions of the books and we find the books to be very objectionable," Miesburg said. "They focus on witchcraft, which is very evil in our view. They focus on death and dying, disrespect of parents, which we also find totally objectionable."

Miesburg complained to the library trustees and the Jacksonville City Council.

"The attitude (library officials) have is that if it gets children to read books, that is great," Miesburg said. "I disagree with that. You shouldn't be teaching children to read things that are evil and are ungodly."

Miesburg also contacted Liberty Counsel, a religious rights organization in Orlando that has fought on behalf of Jacksonville students wanting to pray at high school commencements.

"We believe that witchcraft is a religion and the certificate of witchcraft endorsed a particular religion in violation of the First Amendment establishment clause," said Matthew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel.

Sivulich stopped handing out certificates July 19, after several parents complained. "We decided that discretion was the better part of valor," Sivulich said.

The issue was settled before the Liberty Counsel wrote an Aug. 21 letter threatening a lawsuit, Sivulich said.

He said he didn't believe the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft and said the certificates were a "harmless gimmick."

The books feature Harry fighting against the forces of evil, aided by spells, flying brooms and magical instruments. They do not deal with the philosophical precepts of Wicca or any religious tradition.