As A leading comic actor of his generation, he has spent decades perfecting the art of “parodying religious figures” from his own Christian background.
Yesterday, Rowan Atkinson, star of the Blackadder and Mr Bean programmes, went a step further and helped launch a campaign against a government Bill that he believes would restrict the right to make light of religious sensibilities.
He took his revolt to the House of Commons on the eve of the second reading of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill to publicise the objections of a broad group of writers, representatives of the National Secular Society and MPs.
The Bill is designed to punish extremists who incite religious hatred. The legislation, which aims to protect faith groups, particularly Muslims, from attacks, will create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. Atkinson said elements of the legislation were a “wholly inappropriate response” and could lead to the stifling of freedom of speech.
He told a packed meeting that his plea was on behalf of all authors, academics, writers, actors, politicians and comedians, he said: “To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom.
“The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society and a law which attempts to say you can criticise and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.”
He admitted there were “quite a few sketches” he had performed that could come under the remit of the proposed law “in the right hand and with the right energy”.
While he said he sympathised with those who promoted the legislation, in particular British Muslims, he added: “I appreciate that this measure is an attempt to provide comfort and protection to them but unfortunately it is a wholly inappropriate response far more likely to promote tension between communities than tolerance.”
The Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who chaired the meeting, said the group was planning to lobby ministers, backbenchers and peers to prompt further debate. He said: “The Government calculates that this is the way of appealing to the Muslim vote, given how it does antagonise them by its poor and wrongheaded foreign policy. Nevertheless it is dangerous and wrong to play politics in that way with freedom of expression.”
It is not the first time Atkinson has voiced his opposition to the proposed legislation. Three years ago, he wrote a letter to The Times in which he stated that having spent “a substantial part of my career parodying religious figures from my own Christian background” he believed that there should be “no subjects about which one cannot make jokes, religion included”.
A Home Office spokeswoman said the new legislation would not infringe the right to freedom of speech.