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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us