An incident at a Halloween event last year involving a Muslim attacking an atheist dressed in a Muhammad costume led to a controversial decision by a Pennsylvania judge, who ruled on Feb. 24 in favor of the Muslim man on the grounds of protecting cultural sensitivities.
During an Oct. 11, 2011, parade in Mechanicsburg, Pa., two atheists holding a banner reading "Parading Atheists of Central PA," one dressed in a zombie pope costume, the other in a zombie Muhammad costume, marched down the parade, The Huffington Post reported. The man in the Muhammad costume, Ernest Perce V, was also wearing a "Muhammad of Islam" sign across his neck, which attracted the ire of Talaag Elbayomy, a Muslim immigrant who spotted the costume and walked up to address Perce.
A grainy Youtube video of the incident shows Elbayomy briefly engaging in a physical scuffle with Perce, before the atheist threatens to call police, and the Muslim immigrant leaves the scene. Immediately after, Perce continues parading down the street proclaiming himself to be "Mohammad the prophet who has risen from the grave."
The incident was later brought up before Cumberland County Magisterial District Judge Mark Martin, but he dismissed the charges against Elbayomy, citing a lack of admissible evidence. Martin refused to allow the YouTube video of the incident to be entered as evidence. Apparently, Elbayomy had admitted to a police officer to have pulled the atheist's fake beard, and was charged with harassment.
Judge Martin, however, threw out the charges against the Muslim immigrant, stating that he had the right to stand up for his religion, and that First Amendment free speech rights did not allow for people to make whatever remarks they please without considering another person's cultural sensitivities.
"What you have done is you have completely trashed their essence, their being. They find it very very very offensive," Judge Martin said to Perce, according to an audio recording transcribed by the National Review's Andrew C. McCarthy. McCarthy reveals in his report that Martin is a U.S. Army reservist who has served in Iraq.
"It's unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others. I don't think that's what our forefathers intended. I think our forefathers intended to use the First Amendment so we can speak with our mind, not to piss off other people and cultures – which is what you did," the judge added.
Judge Martin also shared that he had spent seven and a half years living abroad and was aware that America's lack of respect for other cultures is what made some brand Americans as "ugly."
The ruling has sparked a great deal of controversy among civil rights advocates and law experts who are accusing Martin of basing his judgment on Sharia law – moral codes and religious laws in Islam, which some say demand that Islam be respected above all free-speech rights.
Professor Jonathan Turley, who has appeared in a variety of leading law journals from Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Northwestern, and other schools, wrote an extensive piece about the case on his blog and described Judge Martin's decision as "grotesque."
"I fail to see the relevance of the victim's attitude toward Muslims or religion generally. He had a protected right to walk in the parade and not be assaulted for his views. While the judge laments that '[it's] unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others,' that is precisely what the Framers had in mind if Thomas Paine is any measure," Turley writes.
"There are certainly constitutional (and yes cultural) norms that must be accepted when joining this Republic. One is a commitment to free speech. If culture could trump free speech, the country would become the amalgamation of all extrinsic cultures – protecting no one by protecting everyone's impulses," the professor added.
There have been unconfirmed suggestions that Judge Martin himself is a convert to Islam, which McCarthy retracts in his National Review report. However, Diane Gramley, head of the American Family Association (AFA) of Pennsylvania, shared with OneNewsNow that if Martin is indeed a Muslim convert, then his view in the case may have been heavily tainted.
"That definitely changes everything, because if he's a Muslim convert, then that definitely has tainted his view of the law, and he is looking at sharia law and making his decision," Gramley said. "You cannot look at a situation where a Muslim has physically harassed, physically attacked an atheist – granted the guy's an atheist who's in a parade; he's dressed as a Muslim – but that's not against the law."
"This situation is one involving a judge that needs to be removed from the bench," the attorney suggests.
"He is clearly instituting sharia from the bench, using sharia law as a basis to ultimately acquit a person who actually committed an assault and a battery against an individual," said Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel, an international nonprofit litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.
Since Judge Martin's ruling was announced in February, Perce has claimed that he has received 471 death threats, The Daily Caller reported.
"People have said that they would kill me, rip my eyes out, run me over, shoot me and then laugh at me, since I have blasphemed Muhammad," the atheist revealed. "They say I will be found out and hung in front of my family."