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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."

Watch The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer weekdays at 4pm to 6pm ET and Saturdays at 6pm ET. For the latest from The Situation Room click here.

- CNN Belief Blog

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

soundoff (2,453 Responses)
  1. Kevin O.

    I don't agree either side is correct as they both acted like total humans with no divine right, but I will say "More Anderson Cooper".

    February 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      ...humans. yuck.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  2. Jeremiah Graves

    Billy: All religions are cults. Its just that some are more popular than others. ...and I can say what I want and fools like you cant stop me.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      cartman

      February 28, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Jeremiah Graves

      stan

      February 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      haha at least you caught my joke

      February 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Johnny

      The most remarkable thing is that you think that it is okay to call people fools because their irrational beliefs don't match up with yours.

      How does that help anyone? How does that convince anyone? Your statement serves no purpose except to antagonize. What is your goal, if not violence?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  3. Nate

    It's a shame that the YouTube video didn't capture more details of the attack and that the atheist guy didn't get witnesses so that we could know the truth. Sounds like the judge's hands were legally tied without that evidence.

    The first thing I thought of when reading this story is that is possible to interpret Islam as encouraging its followers to lash out violently against any who dare to mock or criticise it: "Fight those who do not believe in Allah...until they pay the tax in acknowledgement of superiority and they are in a state of subjection," declares the Qur'an, Surah 9:29... (one example of many).

    In Islamic countries, this violence historically has gone unpunished; non-Muslims have few legal rights in those places, deriving from the above divine mandate to subjugate.

    Admittedly, not all Muslims interpret these exhortations as a literal call to violence.

    But I believe that many Muslims, including its "famous" fundamentalists, are tacitly comfortable with this violence, which is of course rationalised as a defence of faith.

    Obviously, American concepts of free speech differ wildly with Islam here.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      if the police did not arrest him for the stu pid outfit he had on then his free speech was not violated. If you say something inflammatory about people (any people) they might do something about it. walk through the hood with a kkk shirt on if you don't believe me.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Don Juan

      You have zero understanding of the case. The police had evidence and witnesses, along with a video, which doesn't show the actual assault but is a corroborating piece of evidence. All these things were not admitted by the judge. Lastly, the defendant admitted to the attack.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • reason

      The attacker confessed to the police officer!

      February 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Don Juan

      @deal_with_it,
      Yeah, and see if the attackers would be prosecuted if they were caught and had admitted it. Clown.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      walk into a gay bar with a shirt saying "your gonna end up like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah." See if they practice sharia law there.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      Don Juan, I could care less, I don't like the attacker or the attackee, so why should I care if dude gets off. They only have 6 million of us working as slaves in US jails anyway.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Nate

      Interesting, Don Juan... I will definitely read up on this case, thanks

      February 28, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
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      June 28, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  4. Mike

    Hmmm.... wonder what would have happened if the guy dressed like the Pope got attacked by a Catholic???? I pretty sure the Catholic would be thrown in the hoosgow PDQ.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      apparently not if it was one guys word against the others...especially when the guy alleging this was acting like a fool at the time.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Danny

      That is why this was not justice but sharia law in practice

      February 28, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Steve the stud

      It WASN'T ONE WORD AGAINST ANOTHERS "deal with it." He has the video evidence. Try reading.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  5. deal_with_it

    With rights come responsibilities. We have the right to free speech, which means we cannot be prosecuted for saying what we feel, but that does not mean you have a magic shield around you that is going to prevent someone from whooping your asss. Free speech is good, but you might get your asss whooped if you act like a fool.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • explain it

      how are people supposed to act in parades?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Jeremiah Graves

      He should've fought back then, oh wait, THEN it'd be assault, because obviously the atheist started it. (roll eyes) The fact is: he can dress in any way he wants, that doesn't give someone the right to attack him.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      hey man, I grew up in a time and place where I had to learn how to have fun without saying something stupid and getting my asss kicked. maybe this guy could have used the lessons some of us learned in middle school.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      you wouldn't make fun of gay people in front of todd and bruno the sword swallowing body builders right, because you are smart enough to not want to have that day turn into a nightmare.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Jeremiah Graves

      Free speech. The guy assaulted him. Plain as day. He didn't have to lay a hand on him, had NO right to tell him what to do or not do, the guy can dress the way he wants. Period.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • apply reasoning

      You assault someone for acting stupid? really? are we living in the wild?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      apply reasoning: I am not assaulting anyone...I am a lover, not a fighter. But still, if I don't want to get beat up I am not gonna say or do things in public that might get me beat up.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • America_citizen

      It's people like you that want us to give up our rights and freedoms. I wish you would crawl back into that hole you can out of.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  6. GregK

    All Religions are cults. There is no omnipotent being who created us and guides our lives. Religions as such are black box models developed over time by respective cultures to explain origin and events of the human experience. The sooner we understand this, the more agreeable our existence will be. Natural forces led to our being.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      blah blah blah. atheism is an empty culture because it bases itself around a disbelief in others beliefs. all I hear is blah blah blah. You never hear someone saying something cool like I am an atheist so I believe in _________. Just a bunch of blah blah blah, I am mad because...

      February 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Billy

      Sorry loser, that is not germane to the issue at hand. You mock someone's inner most held beliefs don't be surprised if you get an ass whooping.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Jeremiah Graves

      It is not an empty culture, you're spinning. We're honest and we're not interested in agreeing with theological BS. Deal with it.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Don Juan

      @deal_with_it,
      Go home, you're a moron.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      I am just saying that the only thing I ever here from atheists is "we dont believe in this and we dont believe in that." you never hear anything cool like, we believe in psychedelics and black light posters, or we party on Sundays while everyone is in Church.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  7. Timothy Grivois-Shah

    The idea that any person believes that she or he can physically attack another person, and then use religion as a justification for violence is shocking. America has to stop giving so much special protection for ideas that have no evidence.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Jeremiah Graves

      Here here. I dare someone to assault me, and ya know what, I think next halloween, I will dress up as mohammad.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  8. Ateo1979

    Was is the Muslim being treated specially? If he can't contain himself when someo0ne mocks his ridiculous religion then he needs to be watched. If you don't like the differing beliefs then go to Iran where an Islamic theocracy reigns. The judge is by far an idiot with no sense whatsoever. At least Christians don't attack people dressed like Jesus during the Zombie parade around Easter time.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      I guess you never been down south. Them right wing zealots will try to beat the jesus into you.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
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      June 26, 2012 at 6:03 am |
  9. DMo

    Come on people. This case has nothing to do with Atheism, Christianity, Islam, or religious bias. The judge threw out the case because there was no proof of assault. The other observations by the judge were his own personal opinions and not part of the ruling. Personally I think the judge has a point. While there is no excuse for violence in response to speech, the man was certainly acting in a way he knew would be very hurtful to certain people. He was being a jerk and I'm glad the judge told him so. Anyways, the judge did not throw out the case because he agreed with the attackers reasoning. He threw it out because there was no proof. That's the way it's supposed to be.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      No proof? The guy has a video of the attack and a police officer corroborated the atheists' account of the events.....

      February 28, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • sarah

      No proof. The video does not show the attack and the officer was not there.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • reason

      He admitted to the police officer that he attacked him! Besides it was a parade and there were plenty of witnesses.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Don Juan

      So the fact that the police investigation shows an attack took place isn't evidence? The fact that there's a video that corroborates that isn't evidence? The fact that the defendant admitted to the attack isn't evidence? I see evidence of your lack of intelligence, but there's a whole lot of evidence that an attack took place.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • sarah

      Witnesses who didn't show up and the defendant denied touching the guy in court. The only witnesses who testified were the victim's friends. Not a great case. Maybe next time the victim does this, he'll bring more cameras.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Don Juan

      @Sarah,
      He admitted to the police. The judge refused to admit or consider that. Understand? You really are quite dense, aren't you?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  10. Fr33th1nk3r

    Actualy, the atheist's costume was BRILLIANT– it perfectly showcased the effects religious fanatacism has on society and individuals like the perpetrator. It was a perfect demonstration of the barbarism of religion– you can't even disagree with them without them resorting to physical violence....

    February 28, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      And also, the judge actually WAS a MUSLIM:

      http://republicaninthearts.blogspot.com/2012/02/pa-muslim-judge-mark-martin-dismisses.html

      February 28, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Bobs Friend

      It also actually perfectly demonstrates the heart of atheism.... mocking, arrogance, and disregard and distain for religious people. I don't think the attack was deserved, the attacker should have been thrown in jail. I'm in favor of letting jerks show their true colors.

      But the atheists behavior was completely congruent with what we see on this board constantly from atheists......A preference for insult over civil discourse.
      Jesus said: "Out of the overflow of the heart, a mans mouth speaks"

      February 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  11. Obvious evidence

    People!!!! Do you honestly think that was a fake video just so they could accuse a Muslim? You think that it was staged, really? Don't be delusional. There's also a police account of what happened, as they were there, and the judge refused it. The defendant even admitted to assault to the police. And yet you defend him of being guilty, when he admits it. That shouldn't even be a question.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • sarah

      No. I think that there is a possibility that it was a fake and that is reasonable doubt.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  12. Tessa

    People automatically react to the term atheist with fear. They jump to the conclusion that all atheists are bad people, when in fact the atheists I know are some of the kindest, most intelligent people I've ever met. But jerks like this come along and reinforce the the prejudices. I'd like to slap him upside the head myself.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      For dressing like a historical figure? Why should Muslim's dogmas be off-limits for comedians and average everyday citizens? I support what the atheists did– all you have to do is disagree with religious people and look how they represent and conduct themselves....

      February 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Tessa

      Fr33th1nk3r – For reinforcing what people already want to believe about us. There was a Pope costume too. If a Catholic had kicked his A, I'd feel the same, but we probably wouldn't be discussing it.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  13. Dan

    Wow. It's ok to get attacked for making fun of an imaginary guy in the sky now.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  14. JLS639

    So, was the reason for dismissing the case a lack of evidence? Saying the marchers was acting like a jerk was pointing out the obvious, but if he dismissed the case for a lack of evidence, saying the marcher was a jerk does not give anyone cause to be up in arms.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Johnny

      You are correct - it was due to a lack of evidence. The dressing down was unrelated to dismissing the case.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  15. Jon

    This judge needs to be disbarred, he clearly doesn't understand the First Amendment. This story makes me sick.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • momoya

      but again: we did this to ourselves. God granted us this freedom, and we used it to do this to ourselves. It is *our* fault. It is terrible. but it is humanity's fault, not God's.

      God is not apathetic. Entering time & suffering in our place demonstrates a heart that is anything but apathetic. it is a benevolent mercy that would, in the words of JRR Tolkien make "all the sad things come untrue." and it's exactly why faithful Christians should be seeking to emulate God's heart & see life flourish: whether the poor or a green earth or ending societal structures that are oppressive, etc.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • momoya

      sorry wrong post.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • momoya

      here it is:

      ...Unless you think assault is a reasonable response to speech, call and voice your opinion, now!!!

      Call the judge's office now:

      717-240-7864 << live operator

      717-766-4575 << leave message

      February 28, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • sarah

      Disbarred? For making an unpopular ruling?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Don Juan

      Sarah, go away, you're a total fool.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Emily

      First of all, this isn't a felony case. Harassment is VERY different from assault and I suggest you do your research before getting up in arms. The judge's decision was not quoted in this article, and time and time again CNN has made this error. A judge cannot simply throw out a case on a whim. Decisions made by judges are reviewed meticulously by the office of court administration, and if there was some technical error made by this judge in this case, it would have to be re-tried. However, with such a high-profile case, this would have already happened by now if it needed to.

      Second of all, it looks like you need to research the stipulations of the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not protect "fighting words" or demonstrations of hate. It is NOT a free pass to say, publish, or depict whatever one pleases, particularly not demonstrations of intolerance.

      Being an atheist isn't about publicly denouncing other people's religions.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  16. bull

    Isn't a Halloween parade just for fun? This case clearly showed atheists are not protected by First Amendment rights. In addition, they even can be physically assaulted too. The judge also used what would happen in Muslim countries to teach Perce. Guess poor Perce asked too much for his basic right in his country.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • sarah

      If he'd actually gotten the attack on video, it would had been a different story. Instead, we have a guy yelling briefly off camera and then going back to his chanting. It's just not strong evidence especially considering the fact that he was deliberately trying to provoke people.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  17. Dan

    Mohammed was a kid toucher. Come and get me.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  18. Patrick

    Poor Christians, they want to destroy atheism. We should ship them all to an Islamic country and then they will see how good they have it here.
    I am Christian, but love my secular heritage. I don't feel insecure about anything atheist.
    Because if not for secularism, Islam will start filling the void. And we have seen what happens then. Just look at Egypt, Lebanon and more recently Europe.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  19. Dan Halen

    I guess you all missed the point that the dweeb and the prosecution did not prove their case. Apparently the camera showed nothing. Innocent until provem guilty still stands, last time I checked.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Matt

      I understand that, but the Troy Davis case shot holes in that theory...

      February 28, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Obvious evidence

      Except polic have given an account of what happened, that the judge refused to listen to. That and the fact the defendant even admitted to assault, so that argument does not hold up.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Don Juan

      ...and I guess you missed that fact that the police investigation showed an attack took place and that the defendant admitted to the attack. Talk about a dweeb.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Emily

      The charge was harassment, not assault. Read the article. A judge cannot refuse evidence unless it is impertinent or not authentic. Do your research.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  20. Peter

    LOL...Honestly, I think the person with the goal to provoke has no gripe when he succeeds. Clearly this person knew what he was doing, intentionally carried out his plan and was successful and then sought protection from that which he sought. But this is religion. Let's make believe this same man walked through ground zero with an American flag proclaming the greatness of Allah and then proceeded to burn the flag. Hmmmm...I wionder what would happen to him -and I would find no fault with those who throttled him (within reason of course). Yelling 'FIRE' in a theater or talking of blowing up bombs abd joking about that on a plane is not protected speach. The guy ought to count his blessing he was able to press charges never mind have his day in court! Hahahaha.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • Matt

      So religion gets special rights? Why?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:03 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.