The UK government has unveiled plans to make incitement to religious hatred illegal. The new Bill would give equal protection to all faiths. Sikhs and Jews are already protected by race hate laws. The Racial and Religious Hated Bill would create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred and would apply to comments made in public or in the media, as well as through written material. Although several comedians have expressed their concern that the new law would stifle their freedom of expression, ministers insist it will not ban criticism of religion, or outlaw the telling of religious jokes. The aim is to protect people from incitement to hatred against them because of their faith, explained Home Office Minister Paul Goggins. He said: "It is about protecting the believer, not the belief." Mr Goggins, a Catholic, said he did not expect many prosecutions under the new laws, but said it was important for Parliament to send out a clear message. "People of all backgrounds and faiths have a right to live free from hatred, racism and extremism." Mr Goggins said police had told him they believed the new law could have prevented some of the riots in northern English towns in 2001. Religious hatred is defined in the Bill as "hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief" - showing it will also cover atheists. The maximum penalty for anyone convicted of the new offence would be seven years imprisonment. Conservative shadow Home Secretary David Davis said the proposed law would "seriously undermine freedom of speech" and would be "massively counter-productive". Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris also argued that the plans would jeopardise freedom of expression. "The government's measure would stifle religious debate and feed an increasing climate of censorship," he said. But the Muslim Council of Britain has welcomed the move. Sher Khan, a council spokesman, said that as the courts had already extended protection to Sikh and Jewish people, to not protect other groups would contravene European human rights laws.
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