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State to side with county on Potter

ATLANTA - It's still unknown if Harry Potter will ultimately prevail over Lord Voldemort, but it appears the well-known fictional wizard will remain in Gwinnett County schools.

The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to include in its consent agenda a decision to sustain the Gwinnett County Board of Education's decision to keep the Harry Potter series in local school media centers.

Loganville resident Laura Mallory, whose children attend J.C. Magill Elementary School, had argued the books in J.K. Rowling's best-selling series contain evil themes such as witchcraft, demonic activity and murder that are inappropriate for children. She also contended the books promote the Wicca religion. State-sponsored advocacy of a religion is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Mallory asked the Gwinnett board in April to remove the series from the schools' libraries, but local board members decided the series could stay. Mallory then appealed the decision to the state board.

Wednesday's decision means the state board will uphold Gwinnett's decision as long as the consent agenda is passed today during the board's regular business meeting. The consent agenda contains several items, and the board will vote to pass the consent agenda as a whole rather than voting on individual items, said Dana Tofig, the spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

State board member William Bradley Bryant, the vice chairman of appeals, told the other board members a hearing officer reviewed the record of Mallory's hearing before the Gwinnett board and found the school board "acted within the scope of its authority."

Bryant read a paragraph of the decision to the board: "It is the opinion of the State Board of Education that the Local Board did not abuse its discretion in deciding not to remove the Harry Potter series of books from the media centers of its schools because Appellant (Mallory) failed to establish that the books promoted the Wicca religion."

The decision was presented during a committee meeting Wednesday afternoon. There was no discussion on the item, but board member Dean Alford, who represents the 13th Congressional District, asked a question to clarify that the hearing officer found the Gwinnett board followed the law.

The board originally had planned to discuss Mallory's appeal Thursday in a closed meeting but switched the discussion to a public forum on Wednesday after The Associated Press filed a formal protest with Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

The state board usually goes into executive session - a closed meeting held before the board's public monthly meeting - to discuss appeals of local board decisions. The appeals typically deal with personnel issues or student discipline, both of which are exempt from open meetings laws. Other matters that can be discussed by the board in private include real estate acquisitions and pending or potential litigation.

The Harry Potter appeal falls under none of those exemptions.

Gwinnett County school officials have said the books are good tools to encourage children to read and to spark creativity and imagination. Officials have said banning all books with references to witchcraft would mean mainstays like "MacBeth" and "Cinderella" would have to go.

Mallory can appeal the state board's decision to the Superior Court, Tofig said.

Mallory, who was not present at the committee meeting, did not return by press time a voice mail message seeking comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.