HARRISBURG, Pa. (RNS) Ernest Perce’s planned protest over a proposed state resolution naming 2012 the “Year of Religious Diversity” would probably not make it through the front door.
On Monday, Perce threatened to bring a whip into the Pennsylvania Capitol and use it to desecrate a Quran if the House doesn’t void the resolution by the time it reconvenes from summer recess in September.
The only problem is, if he does bring a whip, he won’t be allowed in.
“In terms of actually coming into the Capitol Rotunda and whipping the Quran, he would not be able to do it with a whip,” said Troy Thompson, press secretary for the state Department of General Services, which includes the Capitol Police.
“They would not allow a whip or any item like that into the capitol because it would be considered a weapon,” he said. “But he does have a right to peaceful demonstration.”
The resolution Perce is protesting would proclaim 2012 the “Year of Religious Diversity” in Pennsylvania. Earlier this year another resolution was passed naming 2012 the “Year of the Bible.”
It sparked protests and a federal lawsuit against the state. That suit is pending.
Perce, an atheist, has made a name for himself by taking extreme positions in protest of religion.
Last year he marched in the Mechanicsburg Halloween Parade as “Zombie Muhammad” and was involved in the group that placed a billboard in Harrisburg portraying an African slave with the biblical quote, "Slaves, obey your masters."
His actions are similar to those of the Westboro Baptist Church, an extreme Christian group that often threatens to protest at military funerals over what they believe are America’s sins.
While on opposite ends of the coin, the two groups use a similar playbook to express their messages.
“I don’t respect their positions” but on the other hand, “when you have a very minority position the only way you are heard is when you have an extreme amplifier,” said Douglas Jacobsen, a professor of church history and theology at Messiah College.
The media coverage garnered by these types of acts, be it a funeral protest or the desecration of a holy book, certainly amplifies the message.
“In the case of Perce ... he has really strong feelings and doesn’t feel that he has been heard, so he needs an extreme act,” Jacobsen said.
But like the Westboro protests, Perce’s actions add little to society’s conversation regarding religion, he said.
“It doesn’t help with any kind of positive conversation,” Jacobsen said. “It just reinforces prejudices on both sides.”
While threats to burn the Quran in the past have incited controversy, a midstate Muslim group said that while it abhors Perce’s threats, it also respects his rights.
“Desecrating any holy scripture is against the teachings of Islam,” said Akram Khalid, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Central Pennsylvania.
Khalid said the group condemns any action that would desecrate the religion’s holy book, but “we take pride in America that provides for freedom of religion and speech.”
“This freedom requires that we act responsibly and not incite people to actions that are against what we all in America stand for,” he said.
Khalid said he would give Perce a free copy of the Quran and was willing to discuss it with him.
“This is my humble request to him: ‘Please read (it) only one time and educate yourself first before you desecrate the Quran,’” he said.
State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, who sponsored the diversity resolution, said Tuesday that he wouldn’t withdraw his legislation.
He said the purpose of the legislation is to raise awareness and respect for the many diverse religions in the state, not just Christianity. Cohen called Perce’s statements “regrettable” and said that Perce’s position “hurts his cause far more than it helps.”
“I’m somewhat befuddled by attempts to create controversy where there really isn’t any,” Cohen said. “If the goal is to secure more respect for atheists, it’s self-defeating.”
(Nick Malawskey writes for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.)