The Government’s proposed new law banning incitement to religious hatred was criticised by human rights organisations and opposition parties tonight, but was broadly welcomed by the major faiths.
Satanists and pagans will enjoy the same protection as Christians under the new Racial and Religious Hatred Bill which aims to prevent people being victimised for their "beliefs".
The Bill was dropped in the last parliamentary session before the general election because of opposition from the Lords. It extends existing laws against the incitement of racial hatred to provide protection to members of all faiths. The Government says it will close a gap whereby Jews and Sikhs are explicitly protected, but not, for example, Muslims.
But the new offence has been denounced by Liberty as a "dangerous new blasphemy law" while both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have said it would undermine freedom of speech.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "There may be good intentions behind this Bill, but the road to censorship is paved that way.
"Most anti-Muslim hatred is thinly veiled race hatred, capable of being caught by more narrow amendment to the present law. This offence is capable of catching attacks on ideas as well as people.
"At best this is an empty sop to a community sorely let down by Government. At worst it is a dangerous new blasphemy law out of step with our best traditions."
Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson has joined the debate saying it would gag comics, while fellow actor and comedian Stephen Fry told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: "It makes no sense. It is embarrassing and they should be ashamed of themselves."
Unveiling the Bill, the Home Office Minister Paul Goggins insisted: "It will not stop people who can tell jokes - and I’m not one of them - from telling jokes. It does not stop people poking fun or causing offence. It is about stopping people from inciting hatred."
Mr Goggins expects just one prosecution a year but insists the law would be a "line in the sand" which could have prevented the riots that swept through northern towns in 2001.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill will extend current offences on incitement to racial hatred under the 1986 Public Order Act to cover the stirring up of hatred against people of any religious faith. The offence will carry a maximum seven-year jail sentence.
The present law protects believers in some faiths - such as Jews and Sikhs - because they are also seen as racial groups, while giving no protection to Muslims, who come from many racial backgrounds.
But David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, said that the legislation would be "massively counter-productive" and would "seriously undermine freedom of speech". He said: "Aggravated crimes against religious groups are already protected under existing law whilst this new law would technically prevent what many people may regard as reasonable criticism of devil worshippers and religious cults."
Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP who has been a prominent opponent of the religious hatred law, said: "The Government’s measure would stifle religious debate and feed an increasing climate of censorship."
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