Religious hate law would protect witches and cults

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Satanists, witches and cult members will be protected by controversial new laws banning incitement to religious hatred.

Satanists, witches and cult members will be protected by controversial new laws banning incitement to religious hatred.

The legislation, which has twice been abandoned in the face of resistance from opposition parties, writers and comedians who argue it threatens free speech, is designed to protect Muslims from extreme prejudice.

But as it launched a fresh attempt to drive the law on to the statute book, the Government said the law would carry a wide-ranging definition of religion. Officials confirmed it could include satanists, pagans and religious sects. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill will also cover people defined by their lack of faith, such as atheists and humanists.

Only one or two prosecutions a year are expected under the law, which will carry a maximum jail sentence of seven years, but ministers argue that it will send out a powerful message that inciting racial hatred will not be tolerated.

The Home Office minister Paul Goggins insisted that riots might not have broken out in northern towns such as Oldham and Bradford in 2001 had such legislation been in place. He said the new criminal offence would be very tightly drawn and would not outlaw comedians' jokes, criticism of religion or provocative commentary on religion.

"People will say offensive things, people will put on offensive plays and there may be literature that causes offence. But the test is: 'Does this incite hatred in another person?'"

Mr Goggins added: "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."

The proposed measure covers comments made in speeches and other public appearances, media interviews and articles. It puts Muslims on the same footing as Jews and Sikhs, who are covered by race-hate legislation.

The Government had to give up its first attempt to bring in laws against religious hatred in 2002 because of fierce opposition in the Lords. A second effort was abandoned when time ran out before the general election.

Labour promised the measure in its election manifesto and the Government has said it is prepared to use the Parliament Act to force it into law.

It has been backed by the Muslim Council of Britain and police chiefs.

The actor and writerStephen Fry told Radio 4's PM programme that the Bill was "rather shaming" and "an embarrassment to the statute book".

"It just suggests it's not a thought-through or needed piece of legislation," he said. "It is something to please communities."

The author Salman Rushdie has complained that the measure would "sacrifice freedom of speech in order to placate Muslim voters".

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "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." David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said the law would be "massively counter-productive" and "seriously undermine freedom of speech". He said: "Religion, unlike race, is a matter of personal choice and therefore appropriate for open debate."