Heard the one about the comics who think Whitehall is just a farce?

Rowan Atkinson made his name lampooning Ayatollah Khomeini on 'Not the Nine O'Clock News'. Now he is leading comics, artists and academics fighting new laws that would stop them criticising today's religious leaders
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The Independent Online

Heard the one about the fundamentalist Christian, the mullah and the rabbi who think they're being persecuted by comedians? No? Well you soon might, for, according to a coalition being led by Rowan Atkinson, such scenes could be coming to a crown court near you. And they're not joking.

Heard the one about the fundamentalist Christian, the mullah and the rabbi who think they're being persecuted by comedians? No? Well you soon might, for, according to a coalition being led by Rowan Atkinson, such scenes could be coming to a crown court near you. And they're not joking.

Tomorrow, the group, which also contains writers, academics and MPs, will launch a campaign against a Home Office Bill outlawing the incitement of religious hatred. They say that the legislation will seriously inhibit debate, satire and even jokes about religion.

Films such as Monty Python's New Testament spoof The Life of Brian, routines such as Billy Connolly's crucifixion riff, stand-up acts and West End shows such as Jerry Springer: The Opera are all potentially threatened, they warn, as well as robust discussion of faiths.

Atkinson said yesterday: "Freedom of expression must be protected for artists and entertainers and we must not accept a bar on the lampooning of religion and religious leaders. There is an obvious difference between the behaviour of racist agitators who can be prosecuted under existing laws and the activities of satirists and writers who may choose to make comedy or criticism of religious belief, practices or leaders just as they do with politics."

The campaign has drawn together an extraordinary alliance. At tomorrow's London launch will be not only Atkinson, The Independent on Sunday columnist Joan Smith and representatives of the National Secular Society, but also the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship and the Barnabas Fund, which works for Christian minorities in Islamic and other countries.

The source of these concerns is the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. Under this, inciting religious hatred will become an offence. The Home Office said that the Bill is aimed at hatred incited towards adherents of a religion, and not towards the religion itself. "This will protect people, not ideologies," said a spokesman. "It is aimed at threatening, abusive or insulting words used with the specific intent or likely effect of inciting hatred. It will not intefere with legitimate debate." He added that, as with race hatred, any prosecution will have to be approved by the Attorney General, and so frivolous cases will be avoided.

Evan Harris, the Lib Dem MP chairing tomorrow's meeting, says the legislation is unnecessary: "There are already enough laws to deal with incitement to violence and disorderly behaviour based on religious grounds."Many entertainers agree. Stewart Lee, comic and co-author of Jerry Springer: The Opera, who once received a death threat from Christian fundamentalists, says: "The legislation is madness and it's unenforceable, but that doesn't mean it's not worth protesting about."

Comedian Howard Read says that the Bill may not inhibit performers so much as producers and lawyers. That might, say campaigners, see a return to the days when broadcasters had to abide by a modern version of the "Green Book" issued to BBC staff in 1949. It banned"reference to and jokes about different religions or religious denominations", and even forbade parodies of Christmas carols.

Bill supporterssay that race law affords legal protection to ethnic groups such as Jews and blacks, and to mono-ethnic religions such as Sikhism, but leaves exposed multi-ethnic faiths such as Islam.

Sadiq Khan, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "This Bill will not stop Rowan Atkinson taking the piss out of religion. All it is trying to do is close a loophole. Far-right groups have got quite sophisticated at not inciting hatred against blacks and Jews because it is illegal, but they do so in regard to Muslims."

Backing him is a coalition comprising Anglican bishops, the Hindu Council, the Network of Sikh Organisations, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Buddhist Society, Jain Samaj Europe, the Baha'is and the Zoroastrians.

Stewart Lee, comedian and co-author of 'Jerry Springer: The Opera' "One would like to think that comedy could incite religious hatred. That would be great. It's the duty of comedians to attack religious belief because you test the elastic limit of a thing by probing it, and belief systems based on faith rather than facts need to be tested. This legislation tells us a lot about the Labour government ... It's a government that dismisses facts and prioritises belief."

Chris Green, aka Tina C "As a comedian, you're not satirising an individual's beliefs but the power of organised religion. The right-wing evangelical agenda is impacting on all our livesat the moment and will be for the next four years at least, so we need the ability to poke fun and ask people to examine it. I was brought up in a very evangelical Christian household and I reserve the right to criticise it. Watch Christian telly in America and you'd think my stuff was tasteful."

Howard Read "Inciting religious hatred is obviously a bad thing, but we should be able to discuss all parts of our society. It seems contradictory, too. Because of the war on Iraq and the war on terror, thousands of innocent Muslims are being killed, but you can't make fun of them. It's like the Government is saying that sticks and stones are OK, as long as you don't call anyone names. This law should be aimed at BNP groups inciting hatred where they've a chance of getting elected."

Dara O'Briain "There's an apocryphal story that Tommy Tiernan was banned from The Late Show in Ireland for blasphemy after his religious material brought in 300 complaints. He's a very religious man. He doesn't think there should be no priests: he thinks there should be better priests. I as a complete non-believer went on in my own show and said: 'There is no God, by the way. Now will somebody complain and give me the publicity Tommy's had?' But no one complained at all."

Adam Hills "I can't imagine the law would ever be applied. I don't think comedy has the power to incite hatred of anyone. Even with Bernard Manning, as off-target as he is, I don't think there's any hatred there. It's pretty hard to do in a comedy context. If there were comedians inciting religious hatred, I'd happily see them taken to court. But the audience would rise against them first. Society would pass judgment before the courts got to them."

Offensive or funny?

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber at the weekends. Woody Allen

If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago, Catholic schoolchildren would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses. Lenny Bruce

Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon says he'd love to give back the West Bank, but can't because it's in his wife's name. Jackie Mason, comic and former rabbi

At the last supper, Jesus Christ tells the Apostles: "Now I'm going to turn the water into wine." And the others told him, no, you put your money in the kitty like everyone else. Stan Boardman

The Buddhist demo was a nightmare. There were 10,000 Buddhists shouting: "What do we want? Nothing! When do we want it?" Sandy Fox, comic and Buddhist

Throw the Jew down the well So my country can be free You must grab him by his horns Then we have a big party. Sacha Baron Cohen (in the role of Borat the Kazakh, teaching American rednecks his song)

Why do very orthodox Muslim women wear black gloves all the time? In case they want to go shoplifting. Shazia Mirza, female Muslim comic who was once attacked on stage by three Asian men

EX-LEPER: Yes, sir, a bloody miracle, sir. God bless you.
BRIAN: Who cured you?
EX-LEPER: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business. All of a sudden, up he comes. Cures me. One minute I'm a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood's gone. Not so much as a by your leave. "You're cured mate." Bloody do-gooder.
BRIAN: Well, why don't you go and tell him you want to be a leper again?
EX-LEPER: I could do that, sir. I was going to ask him if he could make me a bit lame in one leg during the middle of the week. You know, something beggable, but not leprosy, which is a pain in the arse, to be blunt... Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' Christ entered Jerusalem "like a circus clown astride the backs of two donkeys". The words for which John Gott, the last man jailed for blasphemy in Britain, was sent to prison in 1922

Reference to and jokes about different religions or religious denominations are banned. The following are also inadmissible: jokes about AD or BC (eg "before Crosby"); jokes or comic songs about spiritualism, christenings, religious ceremonies of any description (eg weddings, funerals); parodies of Christmas carols; offensive references to Jews (or any other religious sect). The BBC's 'Green Book', issued to all broadcasters, 1949