I’ve never been to Mechanicsburg. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure exactly where it was until I looked it up. But the 2.6-square-mile Cumberland County, Pennsylvania borough seems nice enough, even if Poison lead singer Bret Michaels did grow up in town. There’s a Rolls-Royce museum. The Appalachian Trail passes nearby. And 1,000 or so of the 9,000 folks who call it home show up for the Halloween parade, inexplicably held two weeks before Halloween each year. This is where the problems began.
Last October 11th, Ernie Perce showed up to march in Mechanicsburg’s parade. To put it more accurately, Perce and a fellow member of the Parading Atheists of Central Pennsylvania marched in the parade. Perce’s bud dressed as “Zombie Pope” while Perce opted for a robe, long dark beard and the moniker “Zombie Muhammed.” As he marched down the main drag in Mechanicsburg with a sign around his neck reading “Muhammed of Islam,” Perce repeatedly yelled out, “I am the prophet Muhammad, zombie from the dead.”
Most of the people lining the street probably just looked at Perce like he was an idiot. But not Talaag Elbayomy. The 46-year-old Muslim man found the getup offensive and confronted Perce, who says that Elbayomy tried to choke him. The cops were called in.
Mechanicsburg police officer Brian Curtis responded to the scene, charging Elbayomy with harassment. Curtis thought it would be an open and shut case, since he says that Elbayomy admitted going after Perce. District Court Judge Mark Martin disagreed. Martin dismissed the case, saying there wasn’t enough evidence. But it’s what the judge said during the ruling that has raised quite a few eyebrows.
In a lengthy diatribe highly unusual for such a simple lower-court proceeding, Judge Martin scolded Perce calling him a “doofus.” Martin referred to a copy of the Quran he just happened to have at the bench and challenged Perce to show him “where it says in the Quran that Muhammad arose and walked among the dead. I think you misinterpreted a couple of things. So before you start mocking somebody else’s religion, you might want to find out a little more about it.”
But that’s not all. Judge Martin went on to explain that he spent two-and-a-half years in Muslim countries and that mocking Muhammad is against the law in many nations. “In fact, it could be punished by death, and frequently is, in their society,” noted Martin, apparently an expert on Sharia law. “Here in our society, we have a Constitution that gives us many rights, specifically First Amendment rights. It’s unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others. I don’t think that’s what the forefathers intended. I think our forefathers intended to use the First Amendment so we can speak our minds, not to piss off other people and cultures—which is what you did.”
So, according to Judge Martin, free speech is all well and good, just so you don’t go around annoying anyone? I agree that Perce is most certainly a doofus, but if what he did wasn’t covered by the First Amendment, well, we’ve got ourselves a big problem. And I might need to find another line of work.