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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. Travis

    If there was no proof or witnesses, the so be it. But the judge should be stricken from the bench if he is catering to specific religions.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  2. Mr Rogers

    Sounds like someone got what they wanted and deserved. I like this Judge (btw). FYI ...I am Christian.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • reason

      It does not surprise me that you are Christian.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  3. Bobs Friend

    Strictly statistically speaking, I think this atheist was acting in accordance with what I see on this board every day. He is NOT an aberration, but from what I've seen, mainstream atheist. This is what the atheists do..mock, ridicule, and try to provoke. Anything but civil discourse.
    I support the right to mock, ridicule, and provoke, and I think the Muslim dude should have been tossed in the pokey, but the atheists around here trying to make the case that the atheist was not a typical atheist haven't been on this board very much.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Don Juan

      But you're not blind to the things theists do all around the world, are you? (rolls eyes)

      February 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • momoya

      I think atheists use mockery in the PRIVATE anonymity of these comment boards because they are the subject of PUBLIC ridicule in daily life–from christians.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Rich

      So.. is it because he's an atheist that he gets no freedom of speech? How about I punch the next ass that gives me a religious tract?

      February 28, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • Bobs Friend

      Of course not. When Christians main, kill and destroy, they are ignoring the things Jesus did and said.

      If atheists do such things, they are following the only rule that applies to them.. survival of the fittest (to the point of getting caught at least).
      When Muslims do it, they are obeying explicit instructions in the Koran (Which I've read, so muslims please don't chime in telling me it's not there, because it is & you know it, and I know it is allowed for you to lie in defense of Islam, so don't bother)

      February 28, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Bobs Friend

      @Rich, if you read the whole post you will see that I support the atheist even in his ill-advised and stupid mocking, and call for the jailing of the Muslim.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • QS

      I'm Atheist, I'm also gay. Be me, and then try having a "civil discourse" with any random religious person and see how well that works out for you.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • momoya

      @QS

      You don't live in the South, too, do you?

      February 28, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Donny

      Bob's Friend-That was a very fair assesment.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • QS

      LOL! You couldn't pay me enough money to live in the south! 🙂

      February 28, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Bobs Friend

      @QS
      I encounter many foolish and ignorant atheists on this board, but whenever I come across one that really wants to exchange ideas, I am delighted.
      I think the "Special condemnation" that many religious types hold for gay people belies the principle that "All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God". And furthermore Jesus said " Take the plank out of your own eye, then you can see clearly to help your neighbor with the speck in his eye" i.e.......The Christian focus on sin is to eradicate it from ones own life.

      Nevertheless, the scripture says what it says, but I think that there are other forces, cultural and even biological –visceral forces that also add onto the religious teaching that exacerbate the situation between gay ppl and Xtians.
      If I said that the bible doesn't condemn gay s..e..x, I would of course be lying.

      But on the other hand, when a person comes to Christ, he is not perfected.. i.e. all Christians still sin, yet they are still saved and going to heaven. So I believe someone can come to Christ gay, and struggle with it, and in fact perhaps never overcome it, and still go to heaven. There will be formerly gay ppl (Heaven has no marriage)

      February 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Bobs Friend

      @momoya: Are you saying you are on this board because you are an in-the-closet- atheist in real life?

      February 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • miguel

      Well Bob... how to put it nicely. If someone breaks into your life and tells you to live by their fairy tale, OR ELSE!, how can a one NOT mock and ridicule?
      its this simple, come up with a testable and repeatable experiment that proves god, and i will beleive.

      for the record, i am not an atheist, i am an agnostic, although not following a scripture/dogma/church/cult/mandate controlled and interpreted by clergy gets me binned into the atheist camp.

      Miguel

      February 28, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • Bobs Friend

      @miguel
      I was once an agnostic (I couldn't make the leap into atheism because, at least from my perspective, to rule out the existence of God required infinite knowledge, which would make me omniscient, and therefore God, so it is a self defeating philosophy)
      One day I took Jesus Christ up on His offer: "He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and we will come to Him and make our home with him."
      I had a profound encounter with God that changed me forever. My proof is inside me. That is why Jesus said "Your Joy cannot be taken away from you"
      I understand that you cannot help but mock and ridicule, because you are a slave to it. It is in your nature to mock. It inflates your ego, you receive approval from your friends, and set yourself over another person. But remember that mocking, while fun among degenerates and sinners, has little or nothing to do with getting at the truth. It is simply entertainment for a broodish mob.
      You cannot put God in a test tube because, unfortunately You are not the Almighty and you didn't get to set the rules. He set the rules and rules are that He is infallible, and learning that fact begins with a leap of faith.

      We make leaps of faith everyday, when we cross the street, we entrust our lives to our fellow humans beings will obey the rules and not run over us, even though we know many people get run over all the time. That IS a leap of faith. Trusting God Almighty with your eternal destiny is a smaller leap of faith than that... Millions of people have already done it, and will tell you how Jesus Christ has transformed their lives and revealed Himself to them personally .
      Take a leap of faith!
      God Bless! I will pray for you, because faith is a gift from God.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  4. JakeAZ

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALC7kt6iUHY&w=640&h=360]

    i believe alan parsons said it best "if you believe in the power of magic, its all a fantasy"

    February 28, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  5. deal_with_it

    I bet the right wingers and the neo-cons are all up in arms tonight. gettin the white hoods and the burning crosses ready.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Sigh

      I'm a right winger. I've never worn a white hood in my life. I don't even like wearing the hood from my jacket.

      On the other hand, I'd love to beat the crap out of this judge. Since his opinion offended me, according to his ruling, I have every right to anyway.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  6. Joel

    all i can say is it serves him right to be attacked. if he wants to claim to not believe in a higher power that is his right. but ridiculing the religion of others' is not guaranteed by any amendment and retaliation should be expected. as a Christian i would have done the same thing – the only instance where i would endorse religion-invoked violence, and even still would not be the right thing to do. but just as cain found out in the republican primary – just because it's not right, doesn't mean it's not gonna happen.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • momoya

      Why should a person attack a human body that is only speaking to him?

      February 28, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • sarah

      You might expect to get attacked if you show up to a funeral and tell the family that their kid deserved to die, but that doesn't mean that they can get away with it legally. I think dismissing the case because of lack of evidence was probably correct, but if they guy did it, it was still against the law.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  7. momoya

    ...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 7:55 pm |
    • momoya

      http://jonathanturley.org/2012/02/24/pennsylvania-judge-throws-out-charge-for-harassing-atheist-while-calling-the-victim-a-doofus/

      February 28, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  8. FreeToMock

    Freedom of speech rightfully includes freedom to mock, freedom to insult, freedom to ridicule. This is a legal protection, at least in the U.S., which is separate from the morality of the particular speech. You may think it's "wrong" or immoral if I insult your mother, your god or your ugly haircut, and it may be. But, if you assault me in response, YOU'RE the one who really did something wrong, both legally and morally.

    The judge may or may not be right about the lack of evidence in the assault case, but the idea that anyone is owed some sensitivity is just plain wrong. He should have kept his stupid comments to himself.

    If someone directly insults another, and then gets punched, it's the puncher that's the real jerk. My sympathy always goes to the victim of violence, not the victim of words (if there is even such a thing).

    Is the old saying "Sticks and Stones" correct? Of course it is! When someone says, "Watch what happens if someone insults my ____," with that threating tone like they'd do something physical, I think, "What a pathetic doofus."

    Who are these oafs that think that there is any justification for punching or doing something physical in response to an insult?
    Thin-skinned, language-deficient, frustrated macho lunkheads, that's who.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • deal_with_it

      yucky humans

      February 28, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • sarah

      I don't know if he was trying to say the Muslims are owed sensitivity or just trying to warn the guy that people get killed over stuff like this. I do support the judges right to free speech. lol. He didn't punish the victim in any way. I think it can be blown off. If another judge rules differently, I would be surprised. The evidence is a bit compromised considering its source and what it doesn't show.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  9. James PDX

    Perce should have just said, "Mr. Elbayomy, you state that you did not attack me or attempt to forcibly steal or damage my sign? So, in effect, what you are saying is that when you saw a man clearly insulting, mocking and degrading your prophet, Muhammad, you did nothing to defend your faith and prophet?" Then let this guy, after swearing to his God to tell the truth, state that he did not defend his prophet when his religion calls for it.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Bobs Friend

      Unfortunately, Islam condones lying to your enemies, so he would just lie.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  10. Charlie

    I wish religious nuts would just keep to themselves – if you can yell "death to America," I can dress as Zombie Mohommad. Deal with it.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Brian

      Why swoop to their level? Lol How about we just be mature about it and ignore them. Let them say what they want but don't disrespect them because of their views or ideologies. If your freedom rights violate another persons freedom rights not to be abused or discriminated, then your rights stop there.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Lee

      Brian What rights of the muslim did the athiest violate? He may not have been respectful of these absurd prophets (I don't care if it's Christ or Muhammed, the're all absurd) but respect is not a right, it is something earned.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • FreeToMock

      @Brian – I agree that one's rights stop where another's begin, and that no one is free to violate another's rights. But, in almost every case, real or imagined, speech cannot be the instrument of violation.

      In other words, there's nothing that I can merely say to you that violates your rights. If I were to say, "I won't rent this apartment to you or hire you because your religion or race is X," it wouldn't be my speech or words that violated your equal housing or employment rights. Instead, it would be the action or intended action of not hiring you or renting to you that is the real violation.

      Only when words specifically and physically endanger you, is there an infringement. For example, if I used words to order someone to physically harm you, that would violate your rights. Short of that kind of thing, words cannot and do not violate another's rights.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  11. polycarp pio

    All atheist deserve a good beating to help wake them up! Just kidding, I do not believe in violence, except in defense of yourself or others who are in danger of grevious bodily harm. I didnt hear of any catholics attacking the other guy for being dressed like a pope. Muslims (some) appear to be overly sensative of their book and prophet. I love my bible and I love my LORD JESUS CHRIST but I am not going to attack or harm someone because they dont have the same beliefs. PP

    February 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  12. Scholar

    the judge is flat wrong. An appeal would overturn this judge.

    The act of assaulting someone, if that is what is alleged to have occurred, is an act that can be prosecuted. It does not matter what provocation caused the assault.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • Johnny

      The case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence, not the Judge's personal opinion.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Don Juan

      @Johnny,
      No. The judge refused to consider any of the evidence, including the defendants own admission that he did indeed attack the guy.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  13. Sarah

    Notice catholics don't get violent over silly nerds behaving ostentatiously, islam is barbaric.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  14. Beverlee

    Full story...

    http://jonathanturley.org/2012/02/24/pennsylvania-judge-throws-out-charge-for-harassing-atheist-while-calling-the-victim-a-doofus/

    February 28, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  15. FormCritic

    It doesn't matter why the judge made the ruling he did. What is outrageous is that he lectured the VICTIM for somehow provoking and deserving an attack because someone else was offended. Being offended is not a legal defense. It has no legal standing. It is not a moral value or a right or anything else. No matter what someone else does to offend you, there is NO RIGHT to assault someone else. The judge should have been chewing out the guy who commited a crime, not the victim.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Johnny

      You don't think it is immoral to be offensive for the sake of being offensive?

      I don't know what kind of society you want to live in, but civility is something that benefits everyone.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Scholar

      Was the judge's reference to possible punishments in Islamic countries a recognition of Sharia Law?

      What punishments are in other countries for certain acts such as speaking against a religious personage or of burning the holy book should not ever be mentioned in courts of law in the US, as only the laws of the US should govern judge's rulings.

      It does not matter that people commit acts of violence in other countries when some American in this country does something that upsets them.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  16. miguel

    if a dog bites you, you put it on a leash

    if the same dog then attacks an innocent victim then you put him down

    WHY ARE RELIGIONS NOT GETTING THE SAME TREATMENT!

    if catholic priest have a history of RAPING young boys (inserting male organ in the boys bum hole (to put it bluntly)?
    if islamic mullahs promote and encourage massacres of the innocent (the list is too long to put it here)?

    WHY ARE THESE ORGANIZATIONS STILL ALLOWED ON US SOIL and be TAX FREE?

    February 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • FormCritic

      You're joking, right?

      So, you would argue that when one person from a given organization commits a crime then another person who did not commit a crime is also guilty? RICO statute aside, can you imagine what this would mean for the PTA, the Toastmasters, the local university booster club or your town's chamber of commerce? How about your political party or your model airplane club?

      You guys spend a lot of time talking to each other on the internet. You get used to saying zany things because you're arguing with straw men.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • No need to believe

      Exactly! Why bother justifying any beleif if you are just going to radically defend it no matter how obsurd the belief is? The point is there is no reasoning with any religious faction period.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Scholar

      These organizations are allowed to exist tax free because they say they are charitable organizations, that they have programs to aid the public. We do not make them charities because their leaders wear robes worth more then the annual income of many poor people. We do not make them charities because they build huge buildings that occupy prime real estate and take that off the tax rolls. We do not make them charities because they openly lobby for religious beliefs and want the government to think and act as they do.

      Perhaps we should re-think making them charities and call them what they are: big business.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  17. Jon

    He should have turned around and kicked his muslim ass. Don't tread on me. If you want shira law go back to your country.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  18. Lea

    Does this mean we can attack the Westboro Church and get away with it now?!?

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

      Oh please please please let that be so!

      February 28, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Scholar

      The Westboro church and its so-called minister is the spawn of Lucifer, using religious freedom to spread filth in the name of their so-called religion. Fred Phelps is the anti-Christ personified.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  19. Muhammad

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGbynOi9tIY&w=640&h=390]

    February 28, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  20. ricky

    the enforced belief in something that which does not exist such as the supernatural is what is wrong with civilization. there is not and has never been such a thing as the supernatural.

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

      That is an incredibly strong statement. What is your evidence?

      Even Dawkins admits that he could be wrong (even though he remains confident he is not).

      February 28, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Cyle

      "Supernatural" is a tv show... that's about all the subject has to do with reality

      February 28, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • xSojournerx

      Johnny: The OP doesn't need evidence. There is no evidence to support the existence of the supernatural, that is all that is required.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Johnny

      xSojournerx: Respectfully, that isn't the case. Saying that there is no supernatural and never has been is an assertion of fact, one which requires evidence to be accepted. In the absence of any sort of test, you have no reason to believe that the supernatural has ever existed, but you also have no reasonable basis to say that it doesn't exist.

      If you can't perform a test, you haven't got evidence, you've just got hypotheses. Accepting a hypothesis that cannot (or has not) been tested is faith.

      Dawkins admits that he could technically be wrong because he knows, as a scientist, that this is the truth. It is a point that is often overlooked by the lay person, atheist or otherwise.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:04 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.