Atkinson makes final bid to stop religious hate Bill

The comedian Rowan Atkinson is leading a final attempt to scupper the Government's "creepy and disturbing" plans to bring in legislation banning the incitement of religious hatred.

The Blackadder star was joined by the author Ian McEwan, the director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, civil liberties groups and MPs of all parties yesterday to warn that the proposed law would strangle freedom of expression.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, has championed the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which will receive its second reading today. This is the third attempt to get the provisions on the statute book. With an increase in Islamophobic attacks since 11 September 2001, Mr Clarke insists the provision is essential to close a loophole that protects Jews and Sikhs, but not Muslims.

Opponents argued that the legislation was so ambiguous it could have a wide-ranging, and unintended, effect on producers, writers and comics. They said Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos, staged in the West End this year, could have been vulnerable to prosecution.

McEwan said anxiety over prosecution would make it much more difficult to raise funding for productions such as Jerry Springer: The Opera.

Atkinson, who famously lampooned a bungling vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral, said he had told jokes during his career that could have landed him in court. He added that comedians might also steer clear of sensitive religious subjects for fear of prosecution.

He said: "The Government has prepared a weapon of disproportionate power which can be deployed on their behalf at any time, or at least act as a very forbidding deterrent."

Atkinson said the "most creepy and disturbing" aspect of the Bill was the power it gave Government over whether to launch prosecutions. The Bill's opponents are backing an amendment to the race-hate laws to make clear that they cover attacks on religious beliefs if they are a "proxy" for racial attacks.

The Labour MP and QC Bob Marshall-Andrews said that there was growing pressure among his backbench colleagues for Tony Blair to grant a free vote on the Bill. Some 25 Labour MPs rebelled against a three-line whip to back the amendment in the last parliament.

Graham Allen, a Labour MP and former whip, said he would oppose the measure. He said: "Bringing the law into play in areas of religion will turn our courts into the playground of religious extremists." The Government argues that the legislation would be tightly drawn and not outlaw comedians' jokes, criticism of religion or provocative commentary on religion. Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister, has said: "This will be a line in the sand which indicates to people a line beyond which they cannot go. People of all backgrounds and faiths have a right to live free from hatred, racism and extremism."

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