Comics, MPs and writers unite to fend off religious hatred Bill

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Indy Politics

Figures from the world of culture and entertainment will launch a last-ditch campaign this week against a law which they fear will encourage religious bigots to go to court every time their sensibilities have been offended.

Figures from the world of culture and entertainment will launch a last-ditch campaign this week against a law which they fear will encourage religious bigots to go to court every time their sensibilities have been offended.

MPs will vote on Tuesday whether to go ahead with the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which the Government says will close a loophole in the race laws - though Tony Blair has privately predicted that very few prosecutions will result from it, if any.

Opponents fear it will stir up hardline religious groups who will try to use the law to ban books, plays and jokes that they find offensive. One senior Labour MP warned yesterday that the Bill also risked alienating Labour's white, working-class supporters.

Tomorrow, a diverse coalition including MPs from all three main parties, civil rights activists, the comic actor Rowan Atkinson, the novelist Ian McEwan and the director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, will meet in the Commons to plead with MPs to kill the Bill. McEwan - who will be speaking publicly on this issue for the first time - described it as "fundamentally illiberal, and likely to promote, rather than diminish, tensions between religious groups, and to exacerbate racial hatred".

He added: "The radical or fundamental wings of many religions regard themselves as the unique inheritors of incontrovertible truths, and regard non-believers as their enemies. If this legislation is passed, the devoutly religious could legally insist in response to sharp criticism, or mockery, or intellectual savaging, or even scepticism, that hatred was being 'stirred up' - a lazily conceived and imprecise term."

Hytner told The Independent on Sunday: "The voices of intolerance are getting louder - particularly certain religious people who seem to think they have a right not to be offended and that anything they identify as offensive to their beliefs is illegitimate."

He forecast that the law would catalyse groups such as the Sikhs who rioted outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company in protest at the staging of the play Behzti, by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, or the Christian fundamentalists who tried to ban Jerry Springer: The Opera, or Monty Python's New Testament spoof. "It probably means we wouldn't have been able to make Life of Brian," ex-Python Michael Palin said yesterday.

Labour MP Frank Field, a former social security minister who voted against the measure when it was first introduced before the election, has promised to oppose it again. "White, working-class voters feel that we promise almost anything to win Muslim votes, and they feel left out of that contract," he said.

The measure has forged an unusual alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who have lined up behind a proposal put forward by Lord Lester, a civil rights lawyer, who has suggested scrapping the Bill and amending race hatred law instead.

"We don't oppose what the Government is trying to do, but we think there is a better way of doing it," the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris said yesterday.

Other big names who have opposed the Bill include Monica Ali, the author of Brick Lane, the writer Hanif Kureishi, and the comics Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry, who fear that the law could be used to prevent the telling of religious jokes - although ministers adamantly deny that this is the intention.

Writing in the forthcoming book, Free Expression Is No Offence, produced by the writers' organisation PEN, Ali warned that the law would raise expectations that would be frustrated. She added: "This is not a recipe for good community relations."

However, Paul Goggins, the Home Office minister in charge of the Bill, told The Independent on Sunday: "Some commentators have claimed that this new offence will stop us telling religious jokes and prevent preaching and proselytising. It won't."

He added: "This Bill will remove the anomaly whereby Jews and Sikhs are protected by our race hate laws while other multi-ethnic faith groups are not. We do not expect there to be many prosecutions - in nearly 20 years there have been only 44 convictions for inciting race hatred. Our main purpose is to prevent wrongdoing - to draw a line in the sand that will prevent the kind of hateful behaviour that has no place in a civilised society."

The comedian Chris Green, aka Tina C - who was brought up as an evangelical Christian, said: "People have said to me that the religious material in my shows is offensive - when I've done the Lord's Prayer to the tune of 'Achy Breaky Heart', for instance. My response is always, 'watch Christian telly in America and you'd think my stuff was tasteful'."