The government faces new embarrassment over the religious hatred bill with a warning that witches and satanists could use it to trigger police investigations of their critics.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, now passing through parliament, has been used by Labour to bolster support among Muslims. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, says the bill is of “vital importance” to protect Muslims and other groups from “religious hatred”.
Opponents of the bill — including Rowan Atkinson, the comedian, and Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury — have said that it could be used to censor films, books and television programmes.
Last week they warned that it could also be abused by members of religious cults who could complain to the police about anyone who insulted their beliefs. A similar law in Australia was used by a jailed witch to launch a criminal prosecution of the Salvation Army after it criticised witchcraft.
Kevin Carlyon, who describes himself as the “high priest of British white witches”, said that British witches were likely to use the laws: “Witches do not roam around naked and hang people up. I am pleased that we will be protected by these new laws from bias or persecution.”
Carlyon said that satanist groups were also likely to exploit the legislation: “There are a couple of groups in England and I think they may well use the new act. Some of the satanists are nice as pie, although I don’t support what they do.
“They just have these rules that they have to abide by carnal greed, carnal lust and carnal joy. It’s all the pleasures in life, really, but they are not well thought of.”
Under the act satanists and witches would be able to complain about priests vilifying their beliefs. The stirring up of hatred against people of any religious faith will carry a maximum seven-year jail sentence.
The Witchcraft Act, under which witches could be prosecuted, was repealed in 1951. Helen Duncan, a clairvoyant, was the last person convicted under the act in 1944 in a showcase trial criticised by Winston Churchill as “obsolete tomfoolery”.
Since then witches and satanists have had better treatment. Last year Chris Cranmer, a Royal Navy sailor, was given the right to hold satanic rituals on board his vessel, HMS Cumberland.
The Home Office says the new laws will not be used for frivolous prosecutions because the attorney-general will have the power of veto over any criminal action.
Atkinson, who is considering writing a sketch to provoke a prosecution, said the problem with the bill was its scope: “The right to offend is far more important than the right not to be offended.”
Last week peers opposed to the bill proposed amending it to apply only to threatening behaviour. Ridiculing or insulting religious groups would still be allowed.