The home secretary, Charles Clarke, will today publish a controversial bill banning incitement to hatred on the basis of religious belief, which opponents believe will outlaw religious jokes and curtail free speech.
The racial and religious hatred bill will extend current offences on incitement to racial hatred under the 1986 Public Order Act to cover the stirring up of hatred against people of any religious faith. The offence will carry a maximum seven-year jail sentence.
The government argues the present law is unsatisfactory because it covers followers of some faiths, such as Jews and Sikhs who are also considered as racial groups, while giving no protection to Muslims, who come from many racial backgrounds.
The proposal has come under attack from critics, including the comedian Rowan Atkinson, who argue it will undermine free speech by inhibiting discussion of religion. They cite recent furores over BBC2’s televising of Jerry Springer – The Opera and Sikh protests against the play Behzti as indications that religious groups have taken the government proposals as a green light to try to stamp out critical or irreverent commentary on their faith.
Mr Clarke insists that the legislation will penalise only the incitement of hatred, and that satire, criticism and jokes will still be allowed.
Previous attempts to introduce the law failed after it was blocked in the House of Lords because of concerns over free speech. However the proposal was a Labour manifesto commitment in the May 5 election and featured in last month’s Queen’s speech, making it less likely that peers will block it again.
Although the legislation has won support from many religious groups, not all faith representatives back it. A spokesman for the Evangelical Alliance has warned that it could “damage community relations and usher in a new climate of illiberalism and repression”.