31 January 2006

DUP in religious hatred move protest

Belfast Telegraph

By Brian Walker
31 January 2006

A major demonstration outside Westminster is expected to greet a final Commons vote tonight on a controversial new law banning religious hatred.

The Government is moving to close a gap in the law to shield Muslim belief from hateful attack, as Muslims of many races are not covered by a racial hatred law against single races.

But protesters outside the Commons and about 30 Labour MPs and the DUP within, claim the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill stifles free speech including a robust defence of religion.

The DUP's Nigel Dodds, opposing the bill, declared the Government's treatment of the issue "despicable and dictatorial."

"The threat of a maximum prison sentence of seven years simply for stating your religious belief could be enough to curtail preachers and others from saying anything at all," he said.

There was earlier speculation that years ago the young Ian Paisley could have been prosecuted under such a law for some of his fiery sermons attacking Catholicism.

But the Paisley issue was avoided today by Home Office Minister Paul Goggins in an interview on the Radio 4's Today programme.

"The key thing is not debate or strong language but where people set out with the intention of stirring up religious hatred," said Mr Goggins, when asked if Mr Paisley could have been prosecuted.

MPs are voting to strike down Lords' amendments restricting religious hatred to threatening words and behaviour, rather than a wider definition of insults and abuse.

Under Government changes, a person "reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up" could also be prosecuted.

An unlikely alliance of humanists, Christian evangelicals and some Muslims have united to oppose the bill.

Comedy star Rowan Atkinson, a leading campaigner, said it was unlikely he would be prosecuted because he was too well known, but he was "deeply concerned for all performers and entertainers, because the climate in which we work will be very different if the Government gets its way in the House of Commons today."

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