Satanists and pagans will enjoy the same protection as Christians under new laws banning incitement to racial hatred.
Even atheists will be protected by legislation which aims to prevent people being victimised for their “beliefs”. Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said: “It is any religious belief or lack of belief.”
The law is intended to extend protection from incitement to racial hatred, which already exists, to religions. It means Muslims will be treated in the same way as Sikhs and Jews.
However, it is opposed by Conservatives, who say it will be counter-productive, and TV star Rowan Atkinson, who fears it will leave comedians open to prosecution.
Mr Goggins expects just one prosecution a year but insists the law would be a “line in the sand” which could have prevented the riots that swept through northern towns in 2001.
“We don’t expect there to be many prosecutions. We expect this will be a line in the sand that indicates to people that they can go no further, therefore their behaviour will change.”
The low level of expected prosecutions will fuel suggestions that the laws were included in Labour’s election manifesto to win back Muslim voters following the war with Iraq.
Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said the legislation would be “massively counter-productive” and “seriously undermine freedom of speech”.
“Religion, unlike race, is a matter of personal choice and therefore appropriate for open debate.
“Aggravated crimes against religious groups are already protected under existing law whilst this new law would technically prevent what many people may regard as reasonable criticism of devil worshippers and religious cults.”