This law's a joke

Atkinson protests religion Bill

Rowan Atkinson has launched an attack on a planned new law against inciting religious hatred, claiming it is an attack on freedom of speech.

Atkinson believes the new Home Office legislation will make it a criminal offence to mock religious figures in comedy sketches and routines.

His supporters Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, right, cult musical Jerry Springer: The Opera, Billy Connolly’s famous Crucifixion routine and the baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells from Blackadder would all fall foul of the proposed new Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill.

He told a meeting in Whitehall yesterday:  “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.”

And he added that he could think of “quite a few” of his own sketches that could fall foul of the new law.

He is backed in his campaign is backed by an all-party group of MPs, the secular society the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, the Evangelical Alliance, and The Barnabus Fund, which campaigns to help persecuted Christian minorities around the world, and others.

Atkinson first protested against the proposed law three years ago when it was originally mooted as part of Home Secretary David Blunkettís anti-terrorism measures following the September 11 attacks.

It was dropped then, only to resurface in the new 200-page Bill, getting its second Commons reading today. If passed, it would be an offence to use words deemed to incite religious hatred, with offenders facing a six-months jail sentence. Existing offences cover only racial hatred.

Atkinson said that although the government will argue that comedians are not a target, ìfreedom of expression must be protected for artists and entertainers and we must not accept a bar on the lampooning of religion and religious leadersî.

He added: ìThere is an obvious difference between the behaviour of racist agitators who can be prosecuted under existing laws and the activities of satirists and writers who may choose to make comedy or criticism of religious belief, practices or leaders, just as they do with politics. It is one of the reasons why we have free speech.î

In a statement, the Evangelical Alliance said: ìIt is still difficult to see how legislation could be framed in a way that would not restrict freedom of speech, criminalise those who critique religion, leave the Attorney General and the Courts to adjudicate on religious belief, and introduce a culture of malicious and trivial litigation.î

Comic Stewart Lee, co-creator of Jerry Springer: The Opera, left, added: "The legislation is madness and it's unenforceable, but that doesn't mean it's not worth protesting about."

However, not everyone agrees.

Nigel McCullough, the Bishop of Manchester, told The Sunday Times that bishops in the House of Lords would support the new measure as it extends laws covering ethnic religions such as Judaism to also encompass multi-ethnic faiths, especially Islam.

And Sadiq Khan, of the Muslim Council of Britain, told the Independent on Sunday: "This Bill will not stop Rowan Atkinson taking the piss out of religion. All it is trying to do is close a loophole. Far-right groups have got quite sophisticated at not inciting hatred against blacks and Jews because it is illegal, but they do so in regard to Muslims."

Backing this standpoint is a powerful coalition including Anglican bishops, the Hindu Council, the Network of Sikh Organisations, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Buddhist Society, Jain Samaj Europe, the Baha'is and the Zoroastrians.


>> Independent On Sunday: Comics who think Whitehall is a farce

Published: 7 Dec 2004

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