By Brian Magee

An incident that has gone viral where a Muslim allegedly assaulted an atheist in a “zombie Muhammad” costume marching in a Halloween parade has stirred up negative emotions largely based on misinformation.

In the version of the story that has been the most inflammatory; Ernest Perce was wearing his costume in the 2011 parade alongside another person wearing a “zombie Pope” costume. He claims he was eventually approached by a Muslim who pulled at his fake beard and damaged the sign he was wearing, which read “Muhammad of Islam.” The police were eventually contacted with both people making charges against the other.

When the Pennsylvania case went to court in December 2011, the charge against the offended Muslim, Talaag Elbayomy, was dismissed for lack of evidence, even though the officer on the scene testified that he admitted at the time that he did put his hands on Perce. In court, Elbayomy testified that he didn’t touch Perce. A video recording of the incident was inconclusive. (Elbayomy’s counter charge against Perce was based on his false assumption that it was illegal to offend Muslims in this way.)

Perce was allowed to make an audio recording of the trial and has posted it online. During Mechanicsburg District Judge Mark Martin’s summary of the case, he chastised Perce for about six minutes, calling him a “doofus.”  “I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we could speak what’s on our mind, not to piss off other people and cultures, which is what you did,” Martin also said. “You are way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights.”

The most inflammatory comment supposedly made by the judge is when he was reported to have said, “You’ve completely trashed their essence, their being. I’m a Muslim. I find it offensive.”

It is this supposed comment which has triggered people’s most harsh reactions. It has been seen has a case where a Muslim was protecting another Muslim over the legal rights of an atheist exercising constitutional freedoms. The claim that Martin was instituting “sharia law” has been reported widely by right-wing media outlets.

This quote by the judge that so many people find offensive, however, is not what it seems. When listening to the audio recording of the trial, Martin repeatedly refers to Muslims as “they” and “them.” When he is reported to have said, “I’m a Muslim. I find it offensive,” it can also be heard that he stumbled a bit when speaking “I’m” and the “I find…” can be heard has “I’d find…” As has happened to everyone, a thought is sometimes expressed before the words are fully formed in our minds and what ends up being said is not was what intended. It could very well be that, given the overall context, what the judge was trying to say is “If I’m a Muslim, I’d find it offensive” or something similar.

In addition, the judge has since said he’s a Lutheran.

However, this case does open up a real question to be considered about what rights people have when it comes to the freedoms of speech and religion. Elbayomy, who was watching the parade with his children, said that he approached Perce and asked him to stop what he was doing after his nine-year-old son asked why Muhammad was being mocked. If that was indeed the case—and it ended there—no one could have claimed to be constitutionally wronged. Each person would have exercised their rights, the parade would have continued to its natural conclusion, and a lesson could have been learned by the friends and families of both people about the levels of tolerance it takes to live together.

Since this incident has been widely publicized, however, Perce has said he has received hundreds of death threats, and the Religious Right has become incensed over a misunderstood issue and made matters even worse. Perce has brought much of this on himself by posting the audio of the trial against the direct order of the judge and making repeated claims that the judge is a Muslim.

Finally, the judge in this case is also at fault for going over the line in his chastising of Perce.  A local lawyer who has defended judges, Sam Stretton, was quoted as saying, “I always tell judges, look, decide cases, but you’re under no obligation to explain in detail what’s going on,” adding “The problem is when you’re saying it with a judicial robe on. But it’s not the worst thing to say.”

Brian Magee is the communications associate for the American Humanist Association.