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. Reality

    A warning to all Muslim "lovers":

    o On the koranic passages and world domination:
    "Mohammed could not have known the size of the world, but several passages in the Koran show that he envisioned Islam dominating all of it, however large it might be: “He it is who sent his messenger . . . that he may cause it [Islam] to prevail over all religions´(Koran 9:33, M.M. Ali; see also 48:28 and 61:9). M.M. Ali designates these three passages as “the prophecy of the ultimate triumph of Islam in the whole world.”

    Mohammed’s successors, the caliphs, quoted passages like these to inspire Muslim armies as they advanced out of Arabia, imposing Islam by the sword upon a peacefully unsuspecting Middle East and North Africa, as I described in the previous chapter.

    Islamic armies, imbued with what Mohammed claimed was divine authorization, imposed Islam by force over vast areas, all the while extorting wealth from subjugated Jews and Christians to fund their ongoing conquests. As I noted, major defeats at Tours, France, in A.D. 732, and again at Vienna, Austria, in A.D. 1683, halted Islam’s attempt to take all of Europe by force. Gradually Islamic forces were forced to retreat from Europe, except for part of the Balkans. But Islam has again set its sights on a conquest of Europe and of European civilization, wherever the latter has spread to North and South America and other regions. Muslim strategists ask their followers, Why do we find in these modern times that Allah has entrusted most of the world’s oil wealth primarily to Muslim nations?

    Their answer: Allah foresaw Islam’s need for funds to finance a final politico-religious victory over what Islam perceives as its ultimate enemy: Christianized Euro-American civilization. So, Islam follows Nazism, fascism and communism as the world’s latest hostile takeover aspirant.

    Nazis, fascists and communists failed. Does Islam have a better chance at success? I believe it will flounder if we awaken to its threat in time; yet, if there is not adequate planned resistance, Islam does have a better chance of succeeding. Communism’s world takeover attempt was guaranteed to fail because its economic policy was naively contrary to human nature. Advocating the rubric What is mine is thine, and what is thine is mine, communism failed to see that human nature will not keep those two balanced propositions in equilibrium. Like

    a female black widow spider consuming her mate, the latter part of the formula makes a meal of the former, leading to the collapse of any system based upon that formula.

    In contrast, political systems do well if they can persuade people to adhere to What’s mine is mine and What’s thine is thine maxims.

    Only if a strong religious incentive is added does such an idealistic formula have any long-term chance. Even then success will be spotty. But communism (and Nazism, for that matter) excluded religion. And that mistake was the final nail eventually clamping a lid on communism’s coffin. Communism, on a historical scale, perished while still in its childhood.

    Islam is not repeating communism’s mistake. Mating political cunning and incredible wealth with religious zeal, Islam does have a chance to succeed and will succeed unless major parts of the Western world unite to take appropriate countermeasures. But many Western leaders, unable to believe that a mere religion could possible be a serious political threat, keep proclaiming themselves as Islam-friendly, reasoning that all religions are good-aren’t they?

    A Muslim strategist in Beverly Hills, California, declared several years ago, as quoted by a friend of mine: “Now that the struggle between Western democracies and international communism is winding down, it is time for the real and final struggle to begin, and we are going to win!”

    Don Richardson

    February 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • AmericaIsWeird

      You don't need to read this wall of text to know religion is hogwash.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • James

      We have a population of 6 million Muslims in this country, and I will ask you, politely, how many attacks have come from domestic Muslims that have succeeded? Your willingness to lose perspective displays your motives clearly.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  2. dicerotops

    I'm agnostic, I usually side with the atheists, but this guy wasn't attacked. He was just trying to provoke a situation so he could claim that he was being persecuted by a Muslim. Here is the youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yP-X3hpCfR8&feature=player_embedded#!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • AmericaIsWeird

      Yes everyone do watch it an appreciate how anti free speech the above post is. Or perhaps he is just anti free will.

      Whatever happens, happens.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  3. marc

    If you're a muslim, the judge thinks you can attack somebody and not found guilty of assault because you are defending your prophet and religion. But if you're not a muslim, you will go to jail.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  4. marc

    Sharia is slowly creeping in the american justice system.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Nonimus

      How so?

      February 28, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  5. Voltairine

    The ruling made by Judge Mark Martin seems reasonable enough, assuming, as he asserted, there are no other witnesses. However, it is a transparent abuse of power for the judge to chastise Ernie Perce for what he did while dressed as Mohammed. Judge Martin, do please take your personal opinions on this matter and get stuffed!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Nonimus


      February 28, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Ernie Menard

      I agree that the judge should keep his personal opinions separate from his function as a judge. He can stuff it.
      Moreover, the open mocking of Mohammed is so far within the bounds of protected speech I wonder how this guy became a judge.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  6. Tiredofyou

    So, Carrie, if I don't like what you are saying, I can abuse you? I don't think that is what the first amendment has in mind!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • lgny

      It happens every day. People get angry with each other and start pushing, perhaps knocking away the other's papers.

      Cops or bystanders step in, cool them down, and both go their way.

      It's not clear from this story whether the police arrested the Muslim or if the victim filed charges, but it's really not much more than an angry spat - not a major criminal case.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • me

      Igny it clearly quotes the judge as saying "the Commonwealth" which means that the state prosecuted the muslim.....

      February 28, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  7. Tiredofyou

    This kind of "Judge" is exactly what is going wrong in this country. The only people that anyone is allowed to offend is the majority of the country.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • AmericaIsWeird

      I gotta say that was one of the biggest shocks in adulthood - really sorta strange, I suppose everyone wants to feel themselves an outsider?

      February 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  8. carrie

    I agree with the judge. Also i think ppl need to read their rights about free speech. there are limitations and also free speech doesn't protect us from the consequences of our words.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • me

      You should review the law on free speech and then check the law on battery.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • AmericaIsWeird

      You're stupid.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • JIm

      What if our 'Mohammed' was stabbed in this case. Is it not assault? Would 'Mohammed' have been scolded by the judge when he got out of the hospital? What if our 'Mohammed' had been killed? Was it not assault?

      I think the judge here is wrong. Actually, he's way off base here. I'd have to question his qualifications to be in the judicial system.


      February 28, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  9. Rex

    Does this mean the next time members of the Westboro Baptist Church protest at a soldier's funeral or burn an American flag I can assault them without fear of prosecution? After all, I am sensitive to that issue. According to this judge I would be within my rights. People say and print deliberately inflammatory comments all the time. It's not always smart, but it is their right.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • lgny

      It all depends on what you call "assault"

      If it's a little pushing, tearing up a sign, you'll probably get a ride to the station, get a few minutes to cool off and sent home.

      If you beat them up, then you go to jail.

      Cops (and judges) use this discretion all the time.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Bob Brown

      Just be sure you do it in Pennsylvania.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • me

      Igny do you even know the law?? in law class it is battery if you physical accost someone no matter how minute the result....assault is verbal

      February 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • lgny

      The courts and jails would be very crowded if every pushing match or angry spat turned into a formal legal case.

      Cops and police use their discretion all the time to decide when it's serious enough to be battery and when the two parties get sent home with a scolding and told to be more careful/considerate/temperate.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • haha

      what is funny "me" is that you are rude in the manner in which you inform people of the difference between battery and assault under the common law (a distinction many states do not recognize, i.e., in New York you only have degrees of assault) and in the same breath do not show your own ignorance. Accosting someone is itself a verbal act, not physical, no many how many times it is misused these days.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  10. John

    If the Muskim had been Christian the judge would have ruled in favor of the Atheist.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  11. Tiredofyou

    Why is it that the first amendment only applies to minorities? Judge, are you against free speech?

    February 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  12. lgny

    The accuser claims: "grabbed me, choked me from the back, and spun me around, to try to get my sign off that was wrapped around my neck."

    Since accusations are usually inflated, it sounds like nothing terrible happened. The police should have simply separated them and allowed them to cool off and go their way. Not every angry confrontation deserves to become a legal case.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • me

      Perhaps we should only get the violent people off the streets????

      February 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Reener

      In this case we have a man who took exception and instead of exercising HIS free speech he was trying to prevent another American from exercising his free speech. I know that it was hurtful but still that person had the right to free speech. That is what keeps America going NO ONE GROUP OR RELIGION can dictate justice or the running of the government. The judge in this case should be dismissed he is serving a religion not American justice. Shame on him. This would not be any different if this was situation involving a christian and the other man was dressed as jesus.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  13. AcePilot

    I would say that what the guy was doing was obscene. (Image the reaction if he was dressed as another religious figure, specially as tastelessly as he was portraying Mohammad.)

    Anyway, I don't think the first amendment protects obscenity.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • me

      Once again you must be one that sides with the Westboro Baptist Church , RIght???

      February 28, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • sassypants

      It most certainly does if it is Christianity!! The muslim should have been dressed down too!

      February 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • passing-by

      Actually...that is -exactly- what it protects.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • AcePilot

      Actually I'm an atheist. Have been since 1985.
      It's not about religion. It's about being offensive.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  14. me

    Bottom line, I think that the judge preferred some religion over no religion!!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  15. Chuckie

    Does this surprise anyone? We've been heading in this direction for years. Read what the judge said about the First Ammendment closely. He is absolutely wrong. He has invented a limit to the First Ammendment that simply does not exist in American law...at least not until now.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  16. AmericaIsWeird

    I fully support the atheist, I do not support any individual who holds any idea so strongly that they cannot react nonviolently - in this case its just a person in a costume walking about in mockery. Especially if that idea is one so far from reality.

    I suppose I should feel good about free speech still offending delicate sensibilities. Also Islam is currently worse than Christianity, I'm not sure why everyone argues against that with the historical perspective. They're all bs, but please you'd think these guys were dating mohammed (lower case on purpose, mauahahaha!).

    February 28, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  17. James

    I'm giving up on Americans. You people are so dense you can't see how no one is excusing assault on religious grounds, the decision rests on a lack of evidence. So why then are people so upset, because they associate it with Islam, Muslims, and everything else. Yes that is the reason don't try to bs your way out of it, it says right in the article why you're wrong but here we are now aren't we.

    Now we're getting Westboro references and even those too lack any evidence that religious grounds can excuse assault since they win lawsuits all the time for it. Lets face it people, either you're all Islamophobic psychos or imbeciles. Nothing excuses the comments that are on here.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Phineas

      Actually, James, if you read the comments, a preponderance of them do indeed excuse violence on religious grounds (and much less).

      February 28, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • carrie

      I agree with you. Its lack of evidence. Ppl just get caught up in religion and forget the bigger picture sometimes. I glad that the judge saw clearly through and it.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • sassypants

      Carrie, I don't believe a lawsuit was filed for no reason at all. The proper thing to do is to make sure that you are not violating the First Amendment rights and dress them both down. You don't leave the case such that you are protecting the muslim religion that is contrary to all of our laws and throw the First Amendment out the door. For all of this judges sensibilities he still screwed up! The muslim should have been schooled in our Laws and Rights in America to do what the hell we want.. like it or not!

      February 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • passing-by

      Then why did the judge need to go offline to chastise the person. Additionally, I guess if you discount video, that even though he was with friends and now according to the judge there are suddenly no eye witnesses, then yes, there was a lack of evidence.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • QS

      If you could be bothered to look outside your own experience in life, you might understand that it isn't about the ruling that many of we Atheists are upset about....it's the chastising of the Atheist by the judge while the alleged assailant basically gets a pat on the back.

      If you honestly can't see the religious bias in this case, whether or not it should be involved, I'd have to say you're eitehr extremely naive or willfully ignorant. But that wouldn't surprise me since most religious people behave the same dismissive way towards Atheists while we are forced to endure being exposed to all religions, every day.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • James

      I'm agnostic for one so this isn't against Athiests, I don't have a religion and don't care for anyone's denomination, I do however care for their right to choose and practice a religion (Hopefully without discrimination too), and I would add that I'm also for practicing tolerance, Perce's actions should not have gotten him assaulted, if he truly was (Evidence, whatever was there was not strong enough), Talaag should have walked away. Foremost I was addressing those comments which display the ignorance of what I was talking about in my first comment. Setting up and taking down straw men doesn't change my argument. Changing this to chastising the plaintiff is no greater an argument in this matter because the Judge has a right to say his opinion on the case and the actions of the defendant or plaintiff, that he chose to not to support the intolerance in Perce's actions doesn't inherently demean his intentions to protect freedom of speech.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  18. Joe

    Ok everyone let's not fall off the rocker, this judge got on his high horse and most likely was acting more on his personal feelings than the law. Most likely he see's more in common with a believer Muslim or Christian than he does with an Atheist. But in the end there may not have been enough evidence because obviously the Atheist was acting in a provoking manner so it is possible the Athiest was out to make a name for himself by starting some type of free speech issue in the first place by provoking someone and then filing charges. IT COULD HAVE BEEN A PUBLICITY STUNT JUST TO GET A FREE SPEECH ISSUE STARTED, THE JUDGE MAY HAVE DONE THE RIGHT THING BUT FOR THE WRONG REASONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  19. Nyarlathotep

    Time for a Million Zombie Muhammad March through Central Pennsylvania, and right past this putz of a judge's house.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  20. TexDoc78154

    Freedom of speech isn't free if we can't 'offend' anyone. Trust me, nothing could be said that wouldn't offend someone. Teh judge was wrong and the attacker is guilty, no words justify violence. I remember my mother chastizing me, "so if your sister called you a chair would that make you a chair?" They are only words. Violence is never justified by what soeone says. MLK and Ghandi would agree with me on that one. I like the company.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:11 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.