Virginia School District Deletes Sherlock Holmes Novel From 6th Grade for 'Anti-Mormon' Portrayal

Virginia county deems Sherlock Holmes novel not appropriate for sixth graders.

August 12, 2011, 11:00 AM

Aug. 12, 2011 -- A parent's complaint that a Sherlock Holmes novel is anti-Mormon has led to its removal from the sixth-grade reading list in a Virginia county school system.

In a unanimous vote, the seven-member Albemarle County school board chose Thursday night to remove the Victorian-era detective novel, "A Study in Scarlet," that introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world from the county's sixth-grade curriculum because the novel is not "age-appropriate" for 11 and 12 year olds.

"We decided the book is not age-appropriate to be assigned in toto for sixth-grade students," Harley Miles, the board's vice chair, told ABC News. "It certainly can be used in older grades, but there's lots of other books that could be used for sixth grade."

The school board of the affluent district located outside Charlottesville was forced to consider the ban after parents challenged the book on grounds that it denigrates the Mormon religion.

Brette Stevenson, the Henley Middle School parent who first complained about the book in May, argued that the work was not an appropriate introduction for sixth-graders to religion, deduction and the mystery literary genre.

"This is our young students' first inaccurate introduction to an American religion," Stevenson, a Mormon, told the board.

The book was only used in the curriculum at that middle school of about 120 sixth-graders by one teacher but is no longer on the approved list of books available to the entire school system's 1,000 sixth-graders, a spokesman said.

The banned book is the first in the Sherlock Holmes detective series, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that follows the travails of Holmes, now arguably one of the world's best-known literary figures, and Dr. Watson, a former military man, in a murder investigation.

The work has been criticized for its depiction of Mormons being involved in murder and kidnapping. One storyline depicts "evil" Mormons forcing a main character, Lucy Ferrier, into polygamy.

"The second half of the book deals with very negative representations of the Mormon faith," Miles said.

Mormons In the Spotlight

The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fourth-largest religious denomination in the United States and claims more than 14 million members worldwide.

"Basically, the book was used at the sixth-grade level to look at deduction and reasoning," he said. "We're not saying it's not a good fit, but there are other books that are just as capable."

In the Mormon community, the school board's decision was met with both praise and caution.

"The MDL [Mormon Defense League] is never in favor of banning books from libraries or public access, but we are pleased that Albemarle has looked at what's appropriate for a sixth-grade curriculum and considered removing a book that might promote bigotry," Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR), a non-profit focused on addressing misconceptions of the Mormon faith, said.

When "A Study in Scarlet" was released in 1887, polygamy was still an official practice of the Mormon church in Utah but it has since been denounced.

"A lot of these books from the 1800s portrayed Mormons as villains," Gordon said. "In those days, Mormons were villains that were going to come steal your wives and daughters. No one knew who we were, just a group out West in America, so we were an easy target."

The church disavowed the practice of polygamy in 1890, but the stigma of its polygamist past has remained alive in pop culture, through television shows such as "Sister Wives," and in the news through high-profile cases such as that of Warren Jeffs, the leader of an offshoot sect of the Mormon church who had 70 wives and was, this month, sentenced to life in prison for child molestation.

FAIR this month launched the Mormon Defense League as a rapid-response, campaign-style outlet to handle the church's increased profile and respond to misportrayals of the church in the media.

Two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, are Mormons whose families have held prominent positions in the church.

Broadway is home to the Tony Award-winning "Book of Mormon," a musical that takes a satirical look at the religion, particularly its missionary efforts around the globe, and the church played a central role in a 2008 political battle over gay marriage in California.

"For a long time people have said inaccurate things about Mormons and have gotten a pass," Gordon said. "But I think what's happened with the 'Book of Mormon' and the presidential campaigns, and even the trials and convictions of polygamists not associated with the church, is that the level of awareness has been raised and people are more sensitive.

"Because of that raised sensitivity, more Mormons are willing to step up and point out instances of bigotry when they occur," he added.

The Albemarle County Public School system serves a populous and affluent community. Albemarle is the largest county in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and frequently ranked as one of the nation's top places to raise a family.

The book will remain available to all 13,200 of the county's students in school libraries, but will no longer be listed on the recommended reading list for sixth-grade students.

The school board's decision was based on a recommendation from a committee of parents, community members and school board staff commissioned to study the book. The committee's decision that the book was not age-appropriate was also unanimous.

"The committee decided that the learning goals could be met using another Sherlock Holmes book or another book and not have any effect on the curriculum but get rid of the issue of inaccurate information about the Mormon religion and broaching topics that would be sensitive at age 11," the school district's spokeswoman, Maury Brown told ABC News.

School board vice-chair Miles said the book could easily be replaced by one of Doyle's other novels in the Sherlock Holmes series, such as his fifth novel, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," that Stevenson, the parent who filed the initial complaint, also proposed to the board as a better introduction to mystery.

More than 20 former Henley Middle School students attended Thursday's meeting to show their support for the book and oppose any ban. Quinn Legallo-Malone, a rising ninth-grader at an Albemarle high school, spoke during the meeting's public comment, calling the work "the best book I have read so far."

After the vote, the teenager expressed his frustration with the board's decision.

"It's not what I had hoped for, but I guess they did what's best," Quinn told the Charlottesville Daily Progress newspaper. "I was capable of reading it in sixth grade. I think it was a good challenge. I'm upset that they're removing it."

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