Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Religion Trumps Freedom of Speech

In a bizarre case that brought freedom of religion into direct conflict with freedom of speech, a man who allegedly attacked a marcher dressed up as the Prophet Mohammad in a Pennsylvania Halloween parade was released recently without penalty.

The attacker, Talaag Elbayomy, was charged with harassment, but the judge set him free, 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.”

That’s not quite true.  Everyone involved agrees that Elbayomy attacked self-proclaimed atheist Ernie Perce. 

Judge Martin
More importantly, District Judge Mark Martin (left) verbally blasted Perce for causing the problem. 
"You have that right, but you're way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights," Martin said. "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."

With all due respect to the judiciary, that’s akin to releasing a rapist because he was “provoked” by the victim. 

That used to be an oft-used and acceptable defense in court.  It’s not anymore.

Nor should Perce’s costume, comments or anything else associated with this seemingly minor episode that now has attracted worldwide attention.  After all, what’s to stop a Satan worshipper from attacking someone dressed up like the Devil on the grounds his religion was offended?  I’ve seen a few witches at Halloween.  Shouldn’t Wiccans be offended and use their brooms for more than a night ride?

This issue has been fought before.  In 1977, American Nazis asked for a permit to march in Skokie, Illinois, a town where one in six Jewish residents was a survivor of the Holocaust or related to a survivor.

According to a book on the event, which captured worldwide attention, “American Nazis claimed the right of free speech while their Jewish "targets" claimed the right to live without intimidation. The town, arguing that the march would assault the sensibilities of its citizens and spark violence, managed to win a court injunction against the marchers. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union took the case and successfully defended the Nazis' right to free speech.”

That’s the point: people may say disgusting, offensive things.  However, the freedom of speech – the one right that separates us from almost every country – has to be paramount.  The ACLU, which has a large percentage of Jewish members, stepped up to defend Nazis and ensure they have the right to speak.

This is not a theocracy.  Judge Martin pointed out that, in an Arab country, Perce could be arrested and even executed for insulting the Prophet.  But, this isn’t an Arab country.  It’s not a Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Buddhist country.  It belongs to no religion, no matter how hard rightwing Christian ideologues like Rick Santorum insist it does.

Talaag Elbayomy doesn’t live in a theocracy.  He lives in the United States where people like Perse can do and say disgusting things about Islam.  Elbayomy can sue Perse for damages.  He can’t attack him.

This has nothing to do with Elbayomy’s religion. Religious people of all faiths have done the same thing. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have been known to stone passing cars violating their Sabbath.  Militant Christians have threatened to bomb buildings displaying artwork they deemed blasphemous. Others objecting to abortions have murdered doctors who perform them.

Congress has been involved, especially since the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) gets its money through the Federal Government and is known to support controversial art and artists.  Nevertheless, after one particularly bitter debate over anti-Christian artwork of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, a congressional committee decided that censorship "inhibits and stultifies the full expression of art" and therefore: free inquiry and expression" are "reaffirmed."

That was 1989.  Nothing should have changed since then or since the First Amendment was adopted in 1791.

"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 (right) spent his entire life ticking off people across the colonies,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told CNN.

Paine remains an American hero.  He set an ideal. 

Perse (left) isn’t close to that.  He posted a video on YouTube of his Halloween outfit, revealing a long fake beard, a white turban and green face paint.  He can be heard saying, "I am the prophet Mohammed! Zombie from the dead!" 

He was not polite.  He was not subtle.  However, he is certainly within his rights of free speech, as is conservative icon Rush Limbaugh whose vicious comments about a female Congressional witness also unleashed cries of censorship. He was rightly criticized for his unsavory words, but forcing him of the air because of them is as un-American as anything he has ever said.

The person who chose to attack Perse also should have been punished for one main reason: to demonstrate that this country still has a belief in this fundamental freedom.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

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