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February 28th, 2012
09:46 AM ET

Judge’s dismissal of atheist's harassment claim against Muslim makes waves

By Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, CNN

(CNN) - A protester who ridiculed the Muslim prophet Mohammed claims he was assaulted by a Muslim who was offended by the stunt, but a judge has sympathized with the alleged perpetrator, in a case that has drawn national attention.

Self-proclaimed atheist Ernie Perce marched in a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania last October, dressed in a costume mocking Mohammed.

In a YouTube video he posted, Perce can be seen wearing a long fake beard, a white turban and green face paint, calling out provocative phrases like: "I am the prophet Mohammed! Zombie from the dead!" Perce and someone else in a zombie-themed pope costume are carrying a banner that reads "The Parading Atheists of Central Pennsylvania / Ghoulish – Godless – God-Awful."

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Then a man who is not seen on the video can be heard saying, "Take it down." Amid sounds of a scuffle, Perce can be heard saying "Hey, he's attacking me!"

Perce told CNN affiliate WHTM that the man “grabbed me, choked me from the back, and spun me around, to try to get my sign off that was wrapped around my neck."

Based on Perce's complaint, a Muslim named Talaag Elbayomy was charged with harassment. But on December 6, District Judge Mark Martin dismissed the case, saying it was one person's word against another's, and that there was no other evidence or eyewitness testimony to prove that Elbayomy had harassed or touched the alleged victim.

The judge also scolded Perce, saying he’d been needlessly provocative on an issue sensitive with Muslims.

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"You have that right, but you're way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights," Martin said, according to a recording Perce made of the court hearing. "I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we can speak our mind, not to piss off other people and other cultures, which is what you did."

The judge went on to point out that in many Muslim countries, ridiculing Mohammed could warrant the death penalty under Islamic law.

Critics say Martin's lecture shows he used Muslim cultural grounds to excuse a deplorable assault, and failed to defend an atheist's First Amendment rights.

"That's greatly disturbing to people that believe in free speech," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. "You can say things that are hurtful to others. We hope that you don't, but you most certainly can be protected. People like Thomas Paine spent his entire life ticking off people across the colonies."

Former terrorism prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy, writing on the blog of National Review, accused the judge of allowing the Muslim suspect to invoke a "Sharia defense – what he claimed was his obligation to strike out against any insult against the prophet Mohammed."

And Perce said of Judge Martin, "He let a man who is Muslim, because of his preference of his culture and his way of life, walk free, from an attack."

The judge, in a phone interview with CNN, defended his ruling.

"The commonwealth didn't present enough evidence to show me that this person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Martin said. "That's why I dismissed the case. Nothing as nefarious as what everyone's thinking, that I'm a Muslim or I'm biased. I'm actually a Lutheran."

Martin added that he has served three tours of duty, totaling more than two years, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he learned more about Muslim culture.

"It just amazes me that people think that I'm biased towards Islam," he added. "I got sniped at once, I got ambushed once, I got attacked by a mob once... I've served close to 27 years in the military - and have gone overseas - exactly to preserve that right [freedom of speech.]”

But Martin also repeated his criticism of the atheist protester. "With rights come responsibilities. The more people abuse our rights, the more likely that we're going to lose them," he said. " We need to start policing up our own actions, using common sense, in how we deal with others."

Attorney R. Mark Thomas, who represented the Muslim suspect, blamed Perce for the Halloween altercation. "The so-called victim was the antagonist," he told WHTM. "I think this was a good dressing down by the judge."

A blog post by the group American Atheists disagrees. "That a Muslim immigrant can assault a United States citizen,” it says, “in defense of his religious beliefs and walk away a free man, while the victim is chastised and insulted... is a horrible abrogation."

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- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Halloween • Islam • TV-The Situation Room

soundoff (2,453 Responses)
  1. B

    If you resort to physical violence when someone else verbally insults your religion, you are weak-minded. Any religion that advocates violent reaction to verbal insults is really screwed up.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  2. Sanity in Law

    So, let me get this right. If I make fun of someone's imaginary friend they have the right to attack me and cause me harm? It is OK for everyone to make fun of Catholics, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, Hindus, and everybody else that someone might believe in, but if you do the same thing towards a Muslim then they can attack you? This is the type of ridiculous thinking that empowers these crazy Muslim fundamentalists to keep doing horrible things to people in the name of their religion. This District Court judge should be removed and the case appealed to a Court that actually understands the laws and protections afforded to citizens of the United States.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Thinking7

      Exactly. Those crazy Muslims can kill anyone who is not Muslim for burning their Quran or making fun of their religion in some way. However, we are supposed to remain silent when they attack? I don't think so. They always have their hand ready to fight.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • derp this is logical

      No. There wasn't any evidence. Its nice you an rephrase something so obvious to meet your agenda but try using some common sense next time

      February 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  3. A. Anderson

    Why do ahteist always seem to catch the bad end of a beat down? I guess they don't beleive in tae-kwon-do instuctors either.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • bigot

      trust me anderson, there are plenty of christian Pu$$ies out there too...

      February 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  4. Desert1

    Two wrongs do not make a right,they should have put both of them in jail but as usual nobody seen anything.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • bigot

      so dressing up as Mohammad should land someone in jail just because some other person is insulted? WOW! just WOW

      February 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  5. SNoob

    Some atheists give the rest of us a bad name. I would never, in a million years, pull a stunt like that. Just because I don't believe in a god does not mean I have the right to make fun of someone else's. When do people start standing up like American's and start behaving better then the rest of the world? When do we start taking responsibility for our own actions instead of pointing the fingers at someone else? Just because we are atheists, does not mean we have the right to insult everyone else.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • reason

      There is absolutely no debate that you have the legal right. This judge should be disbarred.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      THANK YOU!!

      From a Christian.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • SNoob

      No denial here he had the right. Just commenting on people's behavior. What he did, while legal, was hurtfull and wrong.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • bigot

      just because someone is insulted doesn't give them the RIGHT to attack someone else.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      Same here. I would never trample on someone's beliefs like that ( I'd do it like THIS... just kidding) But seriously, the atheist was really asking for a response due to his actions. He wanted a heated argument in the very least.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  6. J. Morales

    Perhaps I'm incorrect, but my understanding is that a police officer supported the atheist in this. I am a Christian and dislike how obnoxious atheists can be at times, however they have the right to say that and I would be completely in the wrong to assault them for speaking their minds. This judge should be disbarred immediately, he clearly doesn't understand freedom, liberty, or the concept of rights at all. This is just a shame.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • reason

      Dead on.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      I am a Christian too, Morales.

      You reap what you sow. I stand in favor of this judge and the Muslim.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Jim

      This is a shame indeed when another country's law is cited as a reference.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Observer

      Interesting when muslims call themselves christian or atheist when it suits their agenda. Trojan horse has arrived!

      February 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • derp this is logical

      Must have been reading different stories. I saw a mention of a lack of evidence which clearly is a requirement of our system.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  7. J. Morales

    Perhaps I'm incorrect, but my understanding is that a police officer supported the atheist in this. I am a Christian and dislike how obnoxious atheists can be at times, however they have the right to say that and I would be completely in the wrong to assault them for speaking their minds. This judge should be disbarred immediately, he clearly doesn't understand freedom, liberty, or the concept of rights at all.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  8. steelerguin

    The judge needs to realize we and he doesn' t live in a country with sharia law.....yet , so the reference to capital punishment and mocking mohammed is irrelevant . On the other hand, this Perce fool sounded like he deserved a good *ss-kickin. The case should have been thrown out without patronizing muslims.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  9. canadian84

    The judge was absolutly right! If the atheist was dressed like a monkey and had a poster saying "I'm a nig*ah", would anyone be surprised that a black guy walking by would want to punch him? What if he was dressed like a jew and had a sign saying " Hitler should be back. " Would anyone blame a jewish guy walking by wanting to attack back? If you go out there with the intention to hurt people and insult, than what do you deserve. how about being kind to one another? I tought that Haloween was supposed to be a fun day for kids to dress up and get candy, Not for adults to use the day as an excuse to disrespect others, and instigate hate

    February 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • reason

      What you are saying about the first amendment is highly offensive to many people, so they should have the right to physically assault you?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      The point isn't whether or not he deserved it. It's still an act of violence when he was attacked and the attacker should be held responsible

      February 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • C.Griswold

      It's called self control. Just because you see something you don't like or agree with doesn't give you the right to assult someone. I hate atheists. I think they are suffering from some sort of mental disorder. Yet I don't go and open up cans of whup @$$ everytime they get the 10 commandments taken down from a school or public building....

      February 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • theinfidel2

      and the black guy would end up in jail in your example. for the same reason the KKK and white supremacists are free to march in the streets and are protected by the police, cuz attacking them would be against the law, not marching with them. but regardless, in your example blacks have been misrepresented as subhuman monkeys and oppressed and enslaved because of this misrepresentation for hundreds of year so they have a legit grievance (Saudi Arabia banned slavery only in the 1970s) – no one is misrepresenting Mohammad as someone he was not and the Mulsims were not enslaved for their beliefs (they actually claim they are Alla's slaves and proud anyways)

      February 28, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Thinking7

      You have anger management issues if you think an attack on someone because they are making fun of your religion is okay. Crazy, crazy. Are you Muslim?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Bob

      You can choose your religion. (at least until the Muslims take over and with Judges like this it won't be long)

      February 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Bmarv98

      I find it ironic that you "hate" atheists, but claim to be christian. I thought christians were supposed to love everyone. Hate the sin, not the sinner... no?

      February 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • zooinb

      As soon as the Islamic used force he broke the law. It doesn't mater who attacks another person the attacker is breaking the law. Anyone has the right to make fun of religion and it is done every day to Christians. It is time to stop walking on egg shells because of violent Islam.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  10. HeIsGod

    SO MANY ANGRY ATHEISTS....I SEE.

    HAHAHAHA!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Jean Sartre, Milwauke, WI

      You'd be angry too if every time you turned around some Christian, religious zealot was shoving a cartoon book [i.e. Bible] down your throat along with all the other mysticism, imaginary friends, etc. that you have to deal with on a daily basis. This doesn’t even consider the many cretins knocking on your door, attempting to sell you GOD!

      February 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Jean,

      Who is forcing to open up the door? Who is forcing to accept any Christian tracks and forces to read them? How can something be forced down your throat when you have the very freedom to reject it?

      I say there is a God.....so, STOP SHOVING YOUR FOOLISHNESS DOWN MY THROAT, because I hear this from you Atheists every single day! But yet, you people whine and complian as if some one is forcing you click on EVERY religious articles.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Feast of Beast

      Keep your god to yourself.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Feast of Beast – If you live in America....MOVE!!

      Pack your stuff and get out! If you want us to keep God to ourselves, you are welcome to leave. This NATION IS UNDER GOD AND YOU LIVE IN IT!! LOL

      February 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • bigot

      "I say there is a God.....so, STOP SHOVING YOUR FOOLISHNESS DOWN MY THROAT, because I hear this from you Atheists every single day! But yet, you people whine and complian as if some one is forcing you click on EVERY religious articles."

      No atheists are only asking for proof of your outrageous claims to which you have none.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • bigot

      "This NATION IS UNDER GOD AND YOU LIVE IN IT!! LOL"

      Actually this country prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion or impeding the free exercise of religion, meaning that this country is not a country under god. You maybe under god, but this country certainly isnt.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • derp this is logical

      We must live in a completely different country. I've never had a Bible shoved down my throat. I've only been offered a free Bible once, and refused it. IF you do get offended at the Bible you should go research what the Bible actually is. There is absolutely no reason it should offend you.

      I have had more Atheists knock on my door than Christians when it comes to converting people, and they are actually worse. At least the Christians are polite and accept your answer and leave. Atheists seem to not understand common people sometimes.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      bigot – I may not be able to prove it to you, but God will prove it...you will have plenty of time to see it for yourself throught out eternity.

      So, why should I worry about you not believing?

      February 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  11. Halloween Costume 2012

    Naked only please 😉

    February 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  12. Kwesoe

    Freedom of speech should not mean to speak nonesense.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • theinfidel2

      so do you mean you should shut up?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • reason

      Then why are you speaking nonsense?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Kwesoe

      You said, "Freedom of speech should not mean to speak nonesense."
      No, nonsense is expressly included. Otherwise there would be no freedom of religion.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • derp this is logical

      @LinCA

      >< ah that hurts my head. What do you even mean?

      February 28, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  13. hahn

    I wouldn't be surprise if this jerk didn't live to see his next birthday... wait until Muslim get a hold of his you tube vid. They find where he lives.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  14. reason

    Here's some great commentary:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHXp0Kvn4PM&w=640&h=390]

    February 28, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • derp this is logical

      Haha she is the most biased source they could possibly find.

      Yelling "I'm being attacked" off camera does not mean you are actually being attacked.

      Most of the fights I have seen do not have people stating "I'm being attacked" while they are defending themselves.

      It looks to me like he was just copping out. He put himself in that position and didn't want to deal with the consequences. Someone should tell him there are no shortcuts or redo's in life.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  15. Paul

    Why is it that atheists are so often referred to in the media as "self-proclaimed atheists"? You'd never see an article calling someone a "self-proclaimed Christian."

    February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • C.Griswold

      Because atheism is a mental disorder. It's like saying you were the queen of england. No one believes you, but we are willing to humor you for your entertainment.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  16. Don

    This is a test.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  17. Scott A

    The American Atheists group sounds like a right-wing, non-denominational, hate group. I'm more of an agnostic than an atheist, but I know other atheists and none of them are as hateful and deplorable as this Perce fellow appears to be from the article. To me, he's just another piece of trash who was looking to further incite hatefulness against Muslims. Maybe the racist xenophobic bigots out there forget, or choose to forget, that America's own homegrown terrorist, Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City Bombing), was a Roman Catholic.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Phineas

      Scott A, do you have anything to support your statement that Pearce was looking to incite violence? Or will you admit that it is merely speculation?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Paul

      Even if he was looking to incite violence, his attacker is still breaking the law by committing assault. The judge also excluded the testimony of a police officer at the scene and the video of the attack itself. This isn't a "policing" of the first amendment; it's a violation of this man's rights not to be assaulted. The judge should be disbarred.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Bmax

      Where do you get the idea that athiests are right wing? Find me one who says that they lean to the right. The right is about borders, language, culture, God, family and faith.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      @ bmax
      I'm an atheist and I'm an independent but lean to the right, only on financial issues though. Everything social I'm pretty far left

      February 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  18. Judge_Incompetent

    This d0uchebag did not need to give a lecture to the assaulted individual. If he thought it was one person's word against the other then just dismiss the case. He deserves the Westboro Baptist Church in front of his house......

    February 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  19. fred

    Atheism is a product of human philosophy. Fear is the product of evolution and is instinctive. There is not an atheist alive that doesn't attempt to cover their azz after the last breath is taken and the world has dimmed to darkness, "If you're out there God, give me one more chance!!". Say what you will, you don't fool me one bit.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Paul

      Sounds like you're calling all atheists liars. That would be like me saying that when your final breath comes, you'll finally realize that there's nothing coming next, and finally realizing you were wrong. You might be so mentally weak as to expect that everyone else will cave to terror and reach out to grasp for god at the last moment, but you can't claim to know that they actually do. You're simply asserting that because our very existence as non-believers offends you somehow.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Majestic_Lizard

      Let me guess, not a high school graduate?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Kent

      Pffff. Christopher Hitchens didn't. To hell with your God. I will take that to my grave.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • bigot

      and religion is a product of FEAR. What is your point? Or are you just rambling?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • NOT-Fred

      You must have had a team of idiots help you write that. No single person is that retarded...

      February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • RJA

      Atheism and religious conviction both spring from the same thing.....the human mind. So what's your point?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Well said!!

      February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      If that's what you need to believe to help you sleep at night, more power to you.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • QS

      That's pretty funny actually because, as an Atheist, it's my belief that fear is what inevitably leads people to believe in any god or afterlife in the first place. They can't come to terms with the idea that there may actually be nothing after we die so they latch on to a belief that gives them comfort....belief in an afterlife, eternity or any version of "god" is nothing more than a coping mechanism for those who can't accept that we are in fact finite creatures that are born, live, and die and are not meant or destined to exist for eternity.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • keith a dewey

      Those that have died atheist in our familty NEVER called out to a god in their last moments. You spout just another myth by believers to rationalize your faith.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  20. jojo

    What a shame, they can burn our flag, our bible and we can't do anything about it. But let us do something against their bliefs and we get condemned for it. It's time we start taking our Country back.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • fred

      try acting civilized, see if that helps.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • J.W

      I have never seen a Muslim do that in the United States.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • canadian84

      actually the world has seen many americans burn Qurans..but a muslim burning a Bible...where did u see that?
      and maybe afghans and iraqis would not burn american flags...if americans would not insult them by invading their
      countries and making war. If my country was invaded i would be pretty angry

      February 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.