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. Timothy Carter

    Hypocracy & Hate will continue to divide this nation. You have to look at the evidence presented in the case and 99.99% of the people commenting wasn't in the courtroom. Granted it was Halloween and you can dress up, but this man clearly had an issue to cause attention by his actions and help divide our nation. Way to help destabilize peace in the middle east and cause more harm to our troops. Also, this man filmed what he was doing and it seems his actions historically in some states this man would be arrested for a crime or presently a hate crime. I'm sure CNN can find stories where someone disgraced Jesus from a period in 1400's to present and the person who did it was charged with a crime. Check criminal law of religious cases. As a cultural nation that was built on immigration; we have a responsibility as a nation of unity and peace to respect cultures. Yes you have the right to free speech, but with that speech comes responsibility. If your standing up for speech then you will take responsibility for the actions that come from that speech. I'm a christian and believe in what our forefathers envisioned. A nation of unity, peace, and prosperity for all. Remember..United We Stand Divided We Fall.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • momoya

      @ Timothy

      Are you saying that sometimes a person will get physically beaten for something they say, and that that's perfectly legal and the person who used physical assault should get away with it because of the speech that instigated his actions?

      February 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Phineas

      Actually, your statement suggests you so not believe in what your Forefathers envisions, because they promulgated the first amendment precisely to protect the sort of action you and I and others find offensive. Remember, there is absolutely no need to protect speech everyone agrees with; that amendment exists because indeed people do get offended by certain speech-related actions, and that we never know what sort of speech will offend whom.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  2. East of Eden

    I wont categorize all but many atheists I've met are true hypocrites. They cry and moan about tolerance for all when a large number are some of the most intolerant people around.

    Someone's faith will not injerject with my life so they are free to believe as they wish just like athiests are free to not believe. You can't have it both ways. If I were to quote Psalm 14:1, "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." they would dismiss that, the entire Bible and any other faith as fantasy fairy tales (Sometimes they do this for no reason as the article indicates). They are justified in their thought, it is their right–but my question is why would that come out of someone who is supposed to be a champion of tolerance say this?

    We all have to find our way in this world. We all aren't going to always agree and that's life. If we can just try to work together, do what we will and focus on what really matters, finally we'll become better then the animals. All this technology and so-called rational thought and we still cant even get along in 2012. What a joke this world is.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • East of Eden

      *Why would this come out of the mouth of someone who is supposed to be a champion of tolerance?*

      Sorry about the ugly grammar.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  3. Gonzo

    I do believe you have the right to say whatever you want and not have to worry about somebody physically touching you. that is what this country stands for, correct? I don't care if in those other countries you get killed for that offense. We don't follow the SHARIA law! We are giving in. Too many of our young soldiers have DIED for this thing to be happening. If a guy here wants to burn a Koran book, the Islamic tentacles should not be able to reach our shores and dictate anything.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Phineas

      Think about your statement. If the judge were following Sharia law, there would have been punitive consequences for Mr. Pearce. He made a judgement about the evidence (or paucity thereof), and you may disagree with his decision; but you cannot say this was application of Sharia law.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Joseph

      The punishment was the beating received for the speech. The Judge gave approval to that beating by refusing to prosecute it as assault.

      Hence, the judge promoted the punishment.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  4. the_dude

    You would think an atheist would be tougher instead of such a wimp. Seeing as how there are so many religious people that will kick your ass.

    "He's attacking me"......attack back you wuss

    February 29, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  5. keith a dewey

    Very interesting. The Judge believes that atheists do more harm then Muslims. He figures at least they believe in a God. By the way "justsaying" what makes a person an atheist is saying "I don't believe." Then what ever the counter argument is they say "prove it." Now how is that lying?

    February 29, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • momoya

      It's worse than that. The judge thinks that sometimes the appropriate response to SPEECH is physical ASSAULT.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  6. Scott

    Jjust another case of having to kowtow to the muslim minority in this country. And all you idiots out there saying that the atheist got his just due because he doesn't believe in your little imaginary god friend can kiss off as well. I am sick and tired of hearing about muslim sensibilities and how we have to bend over backwards to accommodate them when I hear nothing from muslim leaders about accommodating christian, jewish, or any other BS religions sensibilities. Sick of it all. Good thing that muslim POS didn't attack me over a costume. They'd be picking him in pieces. And fu#k that judge for using sharia law to decide the case. Though he says he didn't use it it's obvious he did. Perhaps the muslims should join the 21st century instead of living in the 12th century.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Phineas

      It's obvious from your post that you know nothing about Sharia law; it's application here would have meant a penalty for mocking the Prophet Mohammed. Moreover, it is clear that you don't read much. While belligerence certainly characterized Muslim fanatics, there are a great many who do indeed advocate for religious tolerance and have shown that by various community outreach projects, just as Jews and Christians and others do.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Joseph

      @Phineas: At the risk of seeming redundant, the beating received was the punishment meted out by the Muslim in fulfillment of Sharia Law. You may be thinking about this too formally. It isn't always death, or lashes, and it isn't always debated by mullahs or a council of Sharia. In the end, the atheist was punished, and the punisher was permitted to have done so.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  7. Ania

    BAN ALL RELIGION. Why do we have some many god? If i had a country RELIGION would b banned.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Ania

      gods* correction. I know how you ppl like to correct so ill do it for you

      February 29, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  8. OregonTom

    What about the first amendment? The Westboro Church gets away with the exact same shenanigans. Shame on you judge you shoud be removed from the bench. This is the United States, you can say any vile thing you like.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • OregonTom

      type o should

      February 29, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  9. John mckenna

    The judge is simply wrong. Under the law he is required to determine what penalty an attacker should pay whether by jail time, or financial penalty, or both. A judge is supposed to be impartial, and no matter what the victim said or dressed like, this should have no bearing on his decision. To the general public, his decision, and case statements appear to have been rendered because he was afraid of angering the attacker more, or infringing on sharia law. (wow – perception can be tough, eh judge? )

    February 29, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • just sayin

      Read the story, the case had no merit. The atheist could not prove his argument, not an impossible scenario as all atheists are all liars anyway.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • HeIsGod

      Well said, just saying!!

      February 29, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  10. devlar

    If it was a Christian (yes, they mock Mohammed) that was assaulted, Evangelicals would be screaming "Crusade! Crusade! A Muslim assaulted a Christian and the Liberal Judge threw out the case!"

    February 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • HeIsGod

      I am yet to see a Christian attack Muslims for mocking our belief.

      This DUMBO deserved what he received from both ends.

      He reaped what he sowed!!

      February 29, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  11. HeIsGod

    Let's just say that this STUPID atheist wasn't killed.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • momoya

      Are you saying that if you say certain things other people are allowed to legally assault you?

      February 29, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • HeIsGod

      momoya – If it was an Atheist with a costume Jesus Christ, there would be no Christians attacking them. We would pray and than laugh later.


      I don't believe in what ANY religion preaches, but does that give me the right to belittle them and their faith?

      This IGNORANT FOOL was lucky that his life was spared by this Muslim. I stand on the side of the Judge and the Muslim.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • momoya

      Hey, settle down. I just wanted to know if you meant what you said. If you say something that's offensive in just the right way, people have the legal right to physically assault you. Good to know.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • JJ Jukebox

      Totally agree with HelsGod's statement. Word for word...........

      February 29, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • momoya

      @ JJ

      So if you say the right thing, other people have the legal right to assault you physically? Who determines what another person can beat you for saying? Can you provide a list of things you might say that you should be beaten for? Thanks.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • HeIsGod

      momoya – I capitalize some words so you can clearly see what I am talking about, but obviously, you are turninng the blind eye. This has to do with MUSLIMS not just any kind of people.

      If Atheists don't anything to say, SHUT THE HECK UP or SUFFER the consequences of your actions. In my opinion, God favored the Muslims....yes, the God I serve, Jehovah, not their god, Allah.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • HeIsGod

      **If Atheists don't have anything good to say**

      February 29, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • momoya

      So you think that the law should change based upon what that citizen believes about god? Seriously? You're suggesting one law for one group of citizens and other laws for other groups? I seem to remember another country where there was one law for Jews and another for non-jews. Something like that, I guess?

      February 29, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • TypicAtheist

      Atheist would do anything just to solicit even a quark of attention.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 29, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • HeIsGod

      It sure does, I agree %100, but it only changes for those who are have faith. Atheist don't want to see that since they've been blinded by the very author of Atheism....SATAN. Some of them used to be followers of Christ and turned back to their nature say just to become worse than when they were when they first accepted Christ. They were never rooted up in Christ and are backsliders. These blackslider do not want to be known such as, but as Atheists, which is also a group of RELIGIOUS SATANIC people of DISBELIEF preaching on behalf of SATAN, while denouncing the existance of their father, the devil.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Ania


      February 29, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • dubdub

      Your belief in anybodys so called god is not healthy. I guess Santa Clause must be real to....... FREAK!

      February 29, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Jesus

      -The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • just sayin

      Don't study studies, studies are useless, study God.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • nogod

      I see a lot of religious people around me doing all kinds of horrible things, all while never missing a sunday service.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jesus

      "Don't study studies, studies are useless, study God."

      It's been proven to be a waste of time.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  13. 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 29, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  14. Rai

    I just wish all the gods would come down here, take all their followers and bugger off. leave the world to the atheists who are the only ones who appreciate the here and now as well as the truly marvellous way we got here...

    February 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • HeIsGod

      Ooh, finally, I am going to learn about how the existance of humanity accured.

      Please splain cause I am know I didn't evolve by apes or that an explosion caused all the beautiful things that we see with our very own eyes.

      sign....Atheists....LOST & PATHETIC!!

      February 29, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • HeIsGod


      February 29, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • nogod

      aaaand I know that no one waved a magic wand to put us here. Why did god go to all that trouble to flood the world for 40 days? He's god, why didn't he just make everyone disappear or die with the snap of a finger. Not to mention there's not physically enough water on the earth to flood all of it. I mean I could just take the leap of faith to figure that god has the ability make more or less water available as he sees fit, but then why take 40 days? Can god only create water in the sky and let it fall naturally to earth? PATHETIC

      February 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  15. interesting

    i find it interesting that in this country, you can not say anything against or be profane towards islam or judaism, but towards any other religion it seems as though you can say anything, do almost anything against them and it's ok. I thought the freedom of speech in this country meant "FREEDOM" of speech, not matter how much one didn't like it. Yeas, it may instigate irritation, but hey.. people say things to irritate others all the time and we can't attack them for it every time! Why not choke someone for calling me "fat"?? is that an ok thing to do? This judge is an idiot. No wonder why I want to be a judge one day. To get rid of stupid and idiotic judges like this one.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Phineas

      You may make a good judge one day. But first, you've got to recognize the fallacy of your first statement. Profane and vulgar things have been said against Muslims and Jews (and just about everyone else) in the United States virtually since day one. And it's all protected speech. A good place to start your studies of the first amendment is with NSPA V. Village of Skokie, Ill., Your (future) Honor...

      February 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  16. A Reasoner

    Though (most) of our judicial system correctly finds Nazi parades and speeches offensive, they have consistently and correctly upheld their right to have them. No religion deserves special exemption from public criticism. Tolerance of the religiously impaired does not include tolerance of assault. Our cowardly media, intimidated by the threat of violence, surrendered its rights to publish work which cost a cartoonist his life. This judge has surrendered civil law to religious law and paved the way for escalating violence and special dispensation.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Phineas

      There was no sanction of the alleged victim for what he did in terms of his expression. The magistrate found a paucity of evidence to assault. While I disapprove of the admonishment this individual was given in court, none of his rights was infringed upon. There was absolutely no surrender to religious law here. You can say the judge made a wrong decision; you can deplore his courtroom scolding; but you can't say there was any subversion of law here.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  17. R

    Judge said, insulting Islam is not good because in Islamic country person will get death penalty for insulting Islam. Judge has to go.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  18. Sadtimes7734

    The judge is way wrong for not dealing with the assault charge. No one has the right to lay their hands on another person in anger or violence. Our laws do not allow for the killing of someone that mocks the Moslim religion so why would the judge even bring that up? The laws we do have the judge did not even use.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Johnny

      There was no assault charge.

      The alleged crime was harassment. There is a big difference.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:20 pm |




    February 29, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Phineas

      Man, you are so right! In fact, we should start passing bills of attainder to put all these rabble-rousers in jail! That'll show 'em! People shouldn't be able to hide behind due process of law, or the 4th Amendment!

      Translation: thankfully, the Founders were marginally more insightful than our JUGGERNAUT

      February 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  20. TellTheTruthCNN

    Finally CNN reports on this case and yet they still want report ALL of the facts. Judge Martin is way out of bounds and hopefully the review board in PA will slam this Judge. I really hope the victim (btw he was the one actually attacked ... though the Judge makes it sound as teh Muslim attacker was the victim) sues both of these clowns!!

    February 29, 2012 at 8:37 am |
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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.