Hate bill protesters rally at Commons

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Opponents of the Government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which faces its final Commons hurdle today, say the proposed legislation attacks the principle of freedom of expression.

A broad coalition of politicians, religious groups and secularists yesterday joined forces to oppose the plans to ban incitement to religious hatred.

The campaigners, who include comedian Rowan Atkinson, argue an alternative version of the legislation, as amended by peers, would protect minorities while also safeguarding free speech.

Tories and Liberal Democrats are set to be joined in their opposition by some Labour backbenchers as they debate the measure which has also faced criticism from secularists, evangelical Christians and members of the Muslim community.

Ministers have tabled amendments deleting changes put in place by the Lords.

These would have restricted the new offence of inciting religious hatred to threatening words and behaviour rather than a wider definition also covering insults and abuse.

They would also have required the offence to be intentional and specify that proselytising, discussion, criticism, insult, abuse and ridicule of religion, belief or religious practice would not be an offence.

Atkinson, speaking at a Westminster press conference yesterday, said religions must be open to the "widest critique" and that an attempt by the Government to distinguish between the believer and belief was doomed to failure.

"From a comedian's point of view, you cannot make a joke about a belief or practice without characterising it in human form," he said.

"Every joke has a victim and with a religious joke, it is bound to be a practitioner, even if the target is the practice."

He added: "In my opinion, freedom of expression is about being allowed to cause trouble, or create discomfort, or offence, as long as your words or behaviour are not threatening."

Atkinson said "ridiculous, outmoded or hateful" religious practices needed to be criticised and exposed and the followers of such a religion, should, rather than seek immunity from such attacks "defend them, justify them, or correct them".

"What is so frustrating for the creative community is the intransigence of the Government on this issue when the amendment proposed by the Lords is such a workable compromise."

Labour backbench MP Bob Marshall-Andrews QC, appearing alongside the Blackadder star, said that it posed identical dangers to those of proposals outlawing the encouragement of terrorism.

There would be a chilling effect on areas such as publishing and performance.

"An extraordinary society will emerge in which almost every form of prurience from Big Brother onwards will be tolerated whilst serious political journalistic comment, leaders, plays and creative writings which reflect these critical issues of terrorism or religion will effectively be outlawed," he said.

Publishers and producers would be discouraged by the very possibility that they could be investigated or face prosecution.

"We will have achieved at a stroke the worst excesses both of Cromwell and the Restoration: puritanical Government, silence in the theatres - and drunkenness on the streets."

He hoped enough of his Labour colleagues would vote against the Government to bring about an "historic defeat" but admitted he did not know how many were set to rebel.

Gareth Crossman, of human rights group Liberty, voiced concerns over the apparent emergence of a "right not to be offended".

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, of the Muslim Parliament of Britain, said: "We stand for freedom of speech. We do not want to be treated as a special case. The only thing we want is to be treated the same as other communities."

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris said concerns had been expressed by a number of Christian groups, adding today was "the last chance to defend free speech".

Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve said while Britain was becoming more multicultural and more diverse, this should take place within the framework that people "must accept that things will be said about them and their religious beliefs that are quite unpleasant".

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "Had the Government's proposals been in place during the Satanic Verses controversy, the crowd would be baying for Salman Rushdie's prosecution for incitement to religious hatred, which is to carry a maximum sentence of seven years."

Andrea Minichello Williams, of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, said that some Christians were concerned about the possibility that by describing Christ as the only way to God they could be caught under the new law.

She said 5,000 or more were expected at today's demonstration, led by members of black churches.

The Home Office Minister Paul Goggins insisted that the objectors' concerns were unfounded.

"Nothing in the Bill would stop people from telling jokes, from putting on plays, from entering into the most robust discussion and debate about religion and religious belief," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"We are putting on the face of the Bill a very clear commitment that, providing people are not setting out to incite hatred, then they can have robust discussion, criticism, ridicule - even expressed in abusive and insulting terms."

However, Atkinson said he still feared that the Bill could be used to provide religious beliefs with immunity from criticism and ridicule.

"There is a so-called free speech clause which the Government is trumpeting like mad as a big new idea, but to me, having read it, it is virtually meaningless," he told the programme.

"Effectively all that clause is doing - this so-called free speech clause - is saying 'You haven't committed an offence unless, of course, you've committed the offence, in which case, I'm afraid, you've committed an offence'.

"It is a sort of circular bit of drafting nonsense."

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