Extremist religious groups that advocate child abuse will be given protection under a Bill published by the Government yesterday.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill would outlaw remarks considered likely to stir up hatred against all religious groups, including those whose followers believe in beating children to drive out demons.
The Bill contains no definition of “religious belief” and ministers confirmed it would cover members of the African religion whose adherents were convicted last week of cruelty to a girl of eight they regarded as a witch.
Satanists, pagans and atheists would be protected.
Having good reason for making insulting comments that could provoke hatred of a particular religious doctrine would be no defence, nor would the fact that they were true.
Opponents said the Bill would seriously undermine freedom of speech.
In line with the existing offence of stirring up racial hatred, the new religious hatred legislation would apply to threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviour or written material. It would cover authors, publishers, theatre directors, film distributors and broadcasters.
They would face up to seven years in jail if they intended to stir up religious hatred or if their remarks were likely to be heard or seen by someone likely to be stirred up.
Those responsible for a poster campaign, for example, could be prosecuted even if the only people to see the posters were anti-racist campaigners taking them down.
It would not be a defence to the “likelihood” charge that the accused person did not intend to stir up hatred.
Launching the Bill yesterday, Paul Goggins, the Home Office minister, insisted that it would not prevent people criticising religions or telling religious jokes. “It does not stop people poking fun or causing offence,” he said. “It is about stopping people from inciting hatred. It is about protecting the believer, not the belief.”
Mr Goggins said Jews and Sikhs—regarded as distinct racial groups—were protected by existing racial hatred laws, while other faiths were not.
If the proposed law had been in force in 2001, it might have helped deter or punish those inciting riots against Muslims in Bradford and elsewhere, he said.
But lawyers said that “racial hatred” had been given a broad definition in the past.
For example, the Court of Appeal had held that “African” was a racial group for the purposes of the legislation despite the fact that there are different races in Africa.
Lawyers said courts had punished those who abused people on racial grounds even though their attacks were couched in religiously inflammatory language.
Mr Goggins said he thought very few cases would come to court, pointing out that little more than two people a year had been convicted under racial hatred laws.
“We don’t expect there to be many prosecutions,” he said. “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.”
He hinted that the Government would use the Parliament Act if necessary to force the legislation through the Lords. Similar proposals have twice been rejected by peers.
David Pannick, QC, said that, because of the uncertainty inherent in so vague a criminal law, it would inevitably have a chilling effect on freedom of expression about religious beliefs or practices.
But the Government pointed out that there had been few, if any, prosecutions under existing law for telling anti-Semitic jokes and any prosecution would have to be approved by the Attorney General.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said that religion, unlike race, was a matter of personal choice and therefore appropriate for open debate.
“Aggravated crimes against religious groups are already protected while this new law would technically prevent what many people may regard as reasonable criticism of devil-worshippers and religious cults.”
Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney general, said: “We are likely to see religious groups trying to get other religious groups prosecuted, which will inflame community tensions rather than make them better.”
He said members of groups such as the British National Party could set up religious sects to articulate white supremacist theologies, then demand the prosecution of those expressing outrage at their views.
However, the Home Office believed this was inconsistent with previous case law.
For the Liberal Democrats, Evan Harris said the Bill would stifle religious debate and feed an increasing climate of censorship.
Last year Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said: “In a free and democratic society, we are all entitled to be rude about each other.”