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Suit filed over ‘Harry Potter’ discrimination

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. (BP)–A Missouri Baptist is suing after she says she was discriminated against and suspended from her job for refusing to promote a “Harry Potter” book she believes promotes “worship of the occult.”

Deborah Smith, a member of Temple Baptist Church in Poplar Bluff, filed suit in U.S. District Court in May against the director of the Poplar Bluff Public Library and the city of Poplar Bluff. This followed a series of events after the library’s release party of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” last summer. The lawsuit alleges that participating in the event would have forced Smith to engage in “promoting worship of the occult” and “promoting witchcraft to children.”

The suit, filed in Smith’s behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleges that after securing time off from her immediate supervisor so as to not be involved in the library’s after-hours Harry Potter event, the library’s director, Jacqueline Thomas, said Smith would be required to attend, “but in a way that [Smith’s] church community would not know she had participated,” the suit states. “[Thomas] told [Smith] that hiding her participation from other church members should be sufficient to overcome any religious objection.” Smith refused to participate in the event in any role.

“It doesn’t matter to me who else knows it,” Smith told The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. “I know it and my Father knows, and that’s all that matters.”

Smith said although she refused to participate in the event, she did not refuse to check the books out to anyone or refuse anyone service. She said she is aware that not even all Southern Baptists are in agreement when it comes to the best-selling Harry Potter series.

But, she said, that isn’t the issue.

“It’s not about what other people think and it’s not about pushing my view or theology on other people,” she said. “For me, it’s wrong [to embrace Harry Potter]. The Bible says to not be involved in witchcraft and I’m not.”

According to the suit, Thomas allegedly “belittled” Smith’s religious beliefs, threatened to discipline her if she did not participate in the party and asked whether Smith’s beliefs were so strong that she would allow herself to be suspended.

“I told her, ‘My family and I desperately need this job. I have a daughter in college, but I would be willing to lose this job completely rather than abandon my faith,'” Smith said.

The suit alleges that Smith did not participate in the Harry Potter event and was suspended without pay for 10 days. It also states that once she returned to work, she was assigned new and different hours and duties that were specifically excluded from her regular duties. Smith allegedly suffered “stress and medical complications due to the suspension, reduced hours and increasingly laborious tasks,” and “passed out at work while performing physically demanding page/shelver duties.” She resigned Sept. 6, 2007.

According to the suit, Smith suffered injuries including loss of income, pain and suffering, emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment and violation of her constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion.

Thomas declined to speak to The Pathway, referring questions to her attorney, D. Keith Henson of St. Louis, who is also representing the city of Poplar Bluff in the case. Henson also declined to comment on the case, referring instead to his legal response to Smith’s charges that was filed June 27.

According to Henson’s filing, Thomas and the city of Poplar Bluff deny all of Smith’s major allegations. They also contend that because Smith voluntarily resigned, her claim of First Amendment infringement does not hold up. The filing also claims that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction in the case against Thomas and that her “conduct was objectively reasonable, taken in good faith, and did not violate any clearly established rights” of Smith. Smith, the filing continues, “was provided reasonable accommodations for her religious beliefs.”

Smith said she is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, but says she and her attorneys have not discussed an amount. She said she hopes the suit will move forward late this fall. Coincidently, the movie based on “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the book that precedes Deathly Hallows, will be released Nov. 21.
Brian Koonce is a staff writer for The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.mbcpathway.com.

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