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

soundoff (2,453 Responses)
  1. Bryan

    This judged shouldn't be a judge.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • sAdam

      Don't judge the judge because you're not a judge!

      February 28, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  2. L.J. Rhodes

    By this judge's reasoning, then we're allowed to beat the crap out of people who trash gays. They, too, are being unnecessarily provocative. They're also using speech to p**s off other cultures.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • mike

      Actually, all this judge's reasoning states is that people shouldn't be convicted without being proven guilty. Do you disagree with that?

      (Didn't realize you hate freedom and love terrorists).

      February 28, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  3. Atheism arrogance at best

    Why mauled? Should be beheaded.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  4. Fred

    Even though I'm not a muslim sympathizer, I can definitely see where the atheist had it coming. Atheists
    seem to think they can say or do anything with impunity and religious people just have to take it.
    I'm hoping that maybe this will make at least some of them realize that their words and their actions do have
    consequences. As a general rule, atheists feel safer ridiculing Christians because Christians don't react as
    this guy was accused of doing. That may change as atheists become bolder in their attacks on religion.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • L.J. Rhodes

      I'd like to remind you that religious people trash people all the time, and they expect the targets of their attacks to just take it, too. Take Christians' treatment of the gay community in this country. They trash us at every turn, even going so far as to use hate speech and blatant lies to scare people into bashing or even murdering us, passing laws that make our existence illegal, etc., yet when we speak up against this treatment and push back, those same Christians accuse us of intolerance and bullying.

      Atheists are just giving religious people a taste of their own medicine.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • momoya

      Atheism has nothing to do with it, Fred. The subject is free speech. If the Westboro Baptists should be protected for spouting their "hate speech," then muslims can, and so can atheists.

      Under what conditions do you think a person should be able to ASSAULT another person who is merely SPEAKING?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • BRC

      Welcome to the 1st Amendment. If you live in the US, you do just have to take it. You're welcome to haev everybeliever come together adn sing songs about how all the atheists are immoral monkeys on their way to hell- that's you're right too. But you don't get to physically react becasue someone else doesn;t believe what you do.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "I'm hoping that maybe this will make at least some of [insert your least favorite group here] realize that their words and their actions do have consequences. "
      "Shut up or we'll kick your as.s! " – Fred (paraphrased)

      February 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • blkdrgn

      Same goes the other way around. what's the difference if a christian goes to an atheist and tells them they are going to hell for not believing? both sides have always ridiculed the other in one form or another. common sense is not too but in this case the bottom line was there was not enough evidence to prove that Talaag Elbayomy did the crime. no eye witness but sound. maybe they should have done sound/voice forensics?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      LET's Religiosity Law #2 – Circular "holy" book reasoning + sweaty fervor = mental retardation (aka: christianity/muslims)

      February 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • TallEd

      I have seen Christians tell Athesist that they were going to Hell, that they were bad people, incapable of being moral, and that they were runing the country. I don't really see that much of a difference.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Root post by Fred contains the circu-mstantial ad hominem fallacy.


      February 28, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Fred

      Um, no, that fallacy reference does not apply here. Read your own reference and don't just take it for granted.
      I still say the atheist had it coming. Deliberately provoking people has been known to be hazardous to your health.
      There's a big difference between merely exercising free speech and going out of your way to make people mad.
      Just because I won't use violence against someone I disagree with doesn't meant there isn't someone else out
      there who will.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      On review, the post by Fallacy Spotting 101 was in error. Root post by Fred does get a warning for possibly biased generalizing regarding atheists.


      February 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  5. joe

    The judge may have decided the case on the law but he certainly didn't support that with the lecture he gave the alleged victim.

    And regarding the lecture, the Judge was clearly wrong. The lecture should have gone to the Muslim informing the Muslim that in the U.S., making fun of people–anyone, including Presidents and Gods–is perfectly and, in fact, is necessary to the free flow of ideas which is why we have a first amendment blah, blah, blah.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • mike

      No, the judge's lecture was clearly right. You have the first amendment right, but you don't HAVE to be a jerk about it.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  6. richard rickert

    It's the economy stoopid

    February 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  7. Clay

    "You have that right, but you're way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights,"

    I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement!!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • BRC

      Good since it's gibberish-

      "This rope is long enough but it doesn't reach" One cannot simultaniously be a true and a false response, that's not how logic works (kind of up there with physics in the rules the universe works by department)

      February 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • GodisNot

      I agree. He’s contradicting himself and he’s also wrong on the latter part.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • loyalsubject

      I agree. If the Westboro Baptist protests at military funerals is protected speech, then I fail to see how this isn't.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • woohoo

      You're right. His statement makes NO sense and scares me a little, quite frankly.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Charles "D' ape ass-faced" Darwin

      Yes we can see muslims and other religious people on the streets everyday shouting my name.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  8. boom

    u do not have the right to incite a riot.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • BRC

      It's also dangerous to juggle chainsaws, does your tatement have a point?

      February 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Nonimus

      True. Who was talking about inciting a riot?
      "In English criminal law, incitement was an anticipatory common law offence and was the act of persuading, encouraging, instigating, pressuring, or threatening so as to cause another to commit a crime." Wiki

      February 28, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  9. BRC

    For anyone who agrees with the Judge's speech, or with the actions of Elbayomy, I have a simple comparison to make.

    Would you ever teach a child, that if another child said something they disagree with, they should hit them? Do you teach a child to strike other children if they call them names? No, because neither of those behaviors is acceptable. So WHY would we excuse it in adults?

    I am not a pacifist. Anyone who says violence never solved anything has never won a fight. BUT, violence has its place, jsut as words do, and the two exist in different arenas. There are no words, other than those equating to "I am about to harm you or someone you love right now", that EVER warrant a physical reaction. If you can't understand that concept, you have an issue, your developement has stalled somewhere along the line.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • boom

      if a child calls another child a name... YES hit them... or things fester into bringing guns to school. If u dont defend yourself u turn into a sissy. and there is no reason to do something childish like mock another person religion

      February 28, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • BRC

      I see, so calling them a name back, talking out the issue, taking the problem to an authority figuring, talking it out with a group of friends; none of those options are better then hitting someone because they said something?

      And there is plenty of reason to mock religion, don't know if you've noticed, but some of it is ridiculous. The fact that other people believe it doesn't mean anything, only that if you want to be a respectful person you should know the beliefs of the people around you before you speak.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  10. GodsPeople

    You idiot lefties may be willing to accept Sharia law in this country, I'm not. If I have to, I'll remove as much of the muzzie plague as I can personally. All it takes is one man to stand up for what's right, and what's right is enforcing white Christian laws and values in this white, christian country.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      I'm impressed. I didn't know your particular trailer-park had internet.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—"
      – Treaty of Tripoli

      2010 census data shows that the United States is 64% white.

      Your non-christian nation is more than 1/3 non-white – so sorry, Godspeople, your premise is false.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • mike

      let me get this straight:

      You're upset the muslim allegedly used violence to stand up for and defend his religion and wasn't punished for it, and your response is implying that you will stand up for and defend your religion with violence?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • burnz

      Most atheists are lefties. This was technically an Amerindian country before we invaded (not that I think we should give them special treatment). But no atheist is in favour of Sharia Law. Also, you're clearly a bigot, are your parents cousins who are also stupid?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      I'm not a lefty. More like a libertarian.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  11. m1sterlurk

    I imagine that many Christians have their heads exploding over this one. They can't stand up for mocking Islam without saying that their religion is just as eligible for mockery.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      Wrong. We know Islam is false doctrine.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • woohoo

      I'm Christian and I support the first amendment, which gives us the right to mock anyone; religious or not.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • burnz

      @godspeople so is christianity.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Stuck in the Middle

      As are all religions...

      February 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  12. reason

    Here's video of this assault and some great legal commentary as well:


    February 28, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  13. Frank.Carr

    LOL he got exactly what he deserved. if your going to go around and mock peoples personal beliefs you are going to offend somebody. Thats why athiests are ignorant individuals that have no true meaning in life. They just exist and are here to annoy the rest of us that live with fiath and a purpose. I only hope an athiest does that in front of me one day.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • reason

      By your logic it would be perfectly fine to assault you because of what you just wrote.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      LET's Religiosity Law #1 – If you use words and phrases like: "That’s why atheists are ignorant individuals that have no true meaning in life. They just exist and are here to annoy the rest of us that live with faith and a purpose." (I corrected your attempt at spelling)

      Then you are definitely mentally retarded.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  14. Bow down to Zod

    "The judge went on to point out that in many Muslim countries, ridiculing Mohammed could warrant the death penalty under Islamic law"
    So, now the United States is a Muslim country? Where do I turn in my passport...I want to leave!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • markiejoe

      Here's your bag. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  15. JB

    People need to read the article.

    The judge dismissed the assault based on the secular legal requirements for the crime of assault.

    The judge then chastised the 'victim' for taking actions that would tend to incite a breach of the peace. Much like putting a crucifix in urine or peeing on the Alamo. They are all examples of free speech, but they really don't enhance a productive society.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  16. Xander

    Reblogged this on Prisoner of Conscience.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  17. Atheism arrogance at best

    He asked for it. He has been so lucky to have his hollow cranium attached with his body still.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • MarcTTF

      And if it was a christian that was attacked because they did something to offend some other group, you'd be ok with that too?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Stuck in the Middle

      So freedom of speech only applies if they share your personal delusion?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • burnz

      No, that would be entirely different. Atheists are second class citizens.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • MAJORITY always WINS!

      Second class MINORITY, would be the best description.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Atheism arrogance at best

      @mars and stuck

      Have you ever stumbled this article in CNN?: "http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/24/obama-apologizes-to-afghanistan-for-quran-burning/"

      Just a few quotes from it to unmask your pure ignorance and extreme arrogance:

      "Two American troops were killed Thursday by a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform,"

      "Afghan rage over the burning of Qurans by NATO troops continued Thursday even after a President Barack Obama apologized for the "error."

      February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  18. Ozgur

    For crying out loud people, it's not about "agreeing or disagreeing" with the judge about whether or not the atheist was to blame. It is STATED and RESTATED that the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence and nothing more. The dressing down was completely separate from that, and I'd bet he would still have given the dressing down if he'd found the defendant guilty. They are entirely separate issues–at no point did the judge dismiss the case because he agreed with the muslim. READ THE DAMN ARTICLE.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Jonathan

      There is a video and eye witness testimony. The evidence was there but the judge threw it out. Without either, you don't have a case, except word against word. This article doesnt mention either of these things being thrown out, though I have seen seperate articles on other websites that do mention this. CNN hiding something?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  19. ILikeRush

    It is a shame that a person can burn an American flag and a Muslim can get away with assault. We need to get the courts and the government under control.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  20. Dave B

    As a left leaning Independent, I disagree with this judge. Assault is never excusable.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • mike

      I didn't read the part about the judge saying "assault is excusable." I read the part where the case was dismissed because of a lack of evidence.

      However, you are a "left leaning independent" so I'm not sure I can argue with your credentials.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
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