By Brittney Hodnik
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
WASHINGTON, United States – Some of the most fundamental rights protected by the United States are laid out in the First Amendment of the Constitution: freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Interestingly, religious groups seem to enjoy more protection than non-religious groups nowadays; specifically, atheists across the country are facing discrimination. Most recently, a Pennsylvania judge ruled in favor of a disgruntled Muslim who allegedly attacked an atheist at a Halloween parade.
On October 11, 2011 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Ernie Perce, a self-proclaimed atheist participated in a Halloween parade. According to CNN, Perce was dressed as a “Zombie Mohammed,” wearing a long fake beard, a white turban, and green face paint. A fellow member of “The Parading Atheists of Central Pennsylvania” was dressed as a zombie-themed pope, an apparent jab at the Catholic religion.
During the parade, a Muslim man named Talaag Elbayomy allegedly attacked Perce, grabbing him, choking him, and attempting to take an unsavory sign off Perce’s neck. He was charged with harassment based on Perce’s claims and went to court, according to CNN.
On December 6, to many a surprise, District Judge Mark Martin dismissed the case saying that it was one person’s word against another’s, and that a video clip of the incident was inadmissible, according to The Huffington Post.
Judge Martin said there was not enough evidence to proceed, but did not stop his commentary there.
Judge Martin told Perce that “you have that right, but you’re way outside your boundaries of first amendment rights,” reported The Huffington Post. He went on, “[T]his is why we are referred to as ugly Americans, because we are so concerned about our own rights we don’t care about other people’s rights as long as we get our say . . . .”
He also told Perce his actions against the tenets of Islam made him “look like a doofus,” according to The Washington Post. Perce believes that his “lack of belief” played a role in the judge’s decision.
Scholars and rights groups alike found the judge’s comments shocking. According to The Huffington Post, Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University wrote, “[Judge Martin’s] legal views seem grotesquely out of place.” A blog post by the group American Atheists said, “That a Muslim immigrant can assault a United States citizen in defense of his religious beliefs and walk away a free man, while the victim is chastised and insulted . . . is a horrible abrogation.”
Judge Martin defended his actions saying that he is not biased towards Islam and that he has always fought to preserve the right to freedom of speech. According to CNN, Judge Martin spent 27 years in the military and has spent over two total years in Iraq and Afghanistan where he learned much about the Muslim culture.
He reiterated that he dismissed the case because there was not enough evidence to show that Elbayomy was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and that is it. However, he expanded on his courtroom speech by saying, “With rights come responsibilities. The more people abuse our rights, the more likely that we’re going to lose them.”
The Washington Post reports that Judge Martin stands by his decision and would not do anything differently, even considering the hundreds of calls he has received in the last week.
According to CNN, former terrorism prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy 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.”
Turley (the professor from George Washington Law) went on to say that the decision is “greatly disturbing to people that believe in free speech.” According to CNN, he continued, “You can say things that are hurtful to others. We hope that you don’t, but you most certainly can be protected.”
As for Elbayomy, he admitted in court to approaching Perce and laying his hands on him. He said that he took his kids to watch the parade and when he saw Perce pass by he was “shocked” because he could not believe what he was seeing, according to LF Press. He said, “I teach my kids how to respect everybody. Any religion, it doesn’t matter what your religion . . . I teach them to be respectful for everybody.”
At the time, Elbayomy believed that it was illegal for Perce to mock Mohammed, according to LF Press. He actually went to a police officer himself to report Perce’s costume and actions.
Perce and other atheists throughout the country remain upset about the comments Judge Martin made in the decision. Many believe – beyond the dismissal of the case – that the six minute lecture telling Perce how bad he was offending Islam was out of line.
For more information, please visit:
CNN — Judge’s Dismissal of Atheist’s Harassment Claim Against Muslim Makes Waves — 28 Feb. 2012
The Washington Post — PA Judge’s Dismissal of Harassment Case Criticized After ‘Zombie Muhammad’ Posts Trial Audio — 28 Feb. 2012
The Huffington Post — Pennsylvania Judge Dismisses Case Against Muslim Accused of Attacking Atheist Dressed as ‘Zombie Muhammad’ — 27 Feb. 2012
LF Press (London) — ‘Zombie Muhammed’ Alleges Muslim Attack — 27 Feb. 2012
Fox News — Pennsylvania Judge Dismisses Case of Attack on ‘Zombie Mohammad’ — 24 Feb. 2012