Religious hate bill faces protest

Updated on Feb 02, 2006 01:41 PM IST

Secularists, evangelical Christian and Muslims have united to send a plea to MPs to reject the bill, reports Nabanita Sircar.

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None | ByNabanita Sircar, London

It is rather an unlikely alliance but the opposition to Blair Government's proposed religious hatred bill is so great that humanists, secularists, evangelical Christian and Muslims have united to send a plea to MPs to reject it.

As it is 30 Labour MPs are uncomfortable with it and now some Tory MPs are also planning to join the "anti" bandwagon. They claim that it will curb freedom of speech stop comedians from telling religious jokes.

Protesters against the bill are also set to gather outside Parliament ahead of the vote. They say ministers have not done enough to change plans which were defeated in the House of Lords last year.

The government wants religious groups to have the same protection from hate crimes as racial groups. And they dismiss claims the new laws would jeopardise free speech and stop comedians telling religious jokes.

Last year peers voted by a majority of 149 in favour of a cross-bench move to implement freedom of speech safeguards. The proposed safeguards included ensuring nobody is found guilty of religious hate crimes unless it is proved they intended to stir up hatred. The peers said only "threatening words" should be banned by the bill, not those which are only abusive or insulting.

Ministers are instead proposing a compromise which would mean nobody is guilty of an offence if they debate, insult or ridicule a religion - unless they intend to stir up religious hatred. They say people "recklessly" stirring up hatred by their words should also be covered.

Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson said the changes proposed by peers had been made meaningless in the government's compromise offer. "My problem with this bill, and remains the problem, is its potential to provide immunity from criticism and ridicule of religious belief," he said.

Home Office Minister Paul Goggins however insisted the government's latest proposals quelled concern about limits on freedom of speech. Goggins said ministers had made it clear nothing in the bill would stop people telling jokes or having robust debate about religion.

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