London (CNSNews.com) - Controversial anti-hate speech legislation moved closer to becoming law in Britain on Monday, and religious and civil groups from across the political spectrum remain bitterly divided over its potential effects.
Despite claims by the Labor government that proposals to outlaw speech inciting religious hatred will simply close existing legal loopholes, opponents from secular and religious groups claim that it will have a chilling effect on free speech.
The legislation would outlaw "words, behavior or material [that] are... likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are... likely to stir up racial or religious hatred."
Earlier, former Home Secretary David Blunkett dismissed concerns that making jokes about religion would be outlawed. The law would not affect professions of atheism or "genuine" religious debate, he said.
Blunkett, who introduced the bill last summer, said the bill would target extremists who actively work to stir up hatred against Muslims or against non-believers.
Existing laws already make a wide range of "racial hate" speech illegal. However, the government sees a loophole that it says allows racist groups to stir up hatred on the basis of religion rather than race.
Groups ranging from the Muslim Council of Britain and the Commission for Racial Equality have come out publicly in favor of the legislation, along with various Catholic and Anglican bishops.
But a wide-ranging coalition of religious and human rights campaigners have attacked the bill, arguing that the price of freedom it represented was too high.
Paul Cook, spokesman for the Barnabas Fund, a Christian human-rights organization, said the government's assurances were meaningless unless they were actually put into the legislation.
"It is naive for anyone to rely on such statements unless the government builds adequate protection into the bill itself," Cook said.
As things stand at the moment, he said, "at the end of the day it will be down to the Attorney General's subjective personal or legal or political judgment about whether to prosecute."
Although many critics think the legislation is aimed mostly at calming Muslims' fears, some Muslims disagree.
Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Organization, said Friday any such law could be used to target Muslims making unpopular political statements.
"I don't think this bill is there to protect the Muslim community," Shadjareh said. "I think it's there under the pretence of protecting the Muslim community."
As part of a much-broader general crime bill, the legislation is expected to be passed Monday in a final vote by the House of Commons before being sent for consideration by the upper House of Lords.
Many critics of the hate speech provisions are supportive of other aspects of the broader bill. The Serious Organized Crime Bill also calls for tougher penalties on animal rights activists engaging in "economic sabotage" and for the creation of a national, FBI-style law enforcement agency.
Most parliamentary observers foresee opposition to the bill in the House of Lords. Final passage will probably not come before the anticipated general election in the spring.
In recent weeks, some newspaper columnists have speculated that this bill is an attempt by the Labor Party to win back Muslim support lost by the war in Iraq.
Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain -- an organization comprising more than 400 community and religious groups -- said that was ridiculous.
"This argument about this being a quid pro quo doesn't hold up at all." Bunglawala said. "This legislation has been in the works for a long time."
Similar anti-hate speech was introduced in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, but defeated.
Roger Smith, press director for human-rights group Justice, predicted that the entire debate over the bill would be quickly forgotten. Controversial speech and work would continue to be seen in Britain, he said, citing the recent case of Jerry Springer -- The Opera.
"I think this will be looked at as a tempest in a teacup," Smith said. "I think these powers will be rarely used."
Some British opponents of the bill have pointed to a situation in Australia, where similar legislation in place in one state has resulted in two Christian pastors being found guilty of vilifying Islam.
The controversial case arose from a post-9/11 seminar at which Muslim beliefs, scriptures and strategies were examined for a Christian audience.
The Australian judgment has been widely criticized, with calls to rescind the legislation which allowed the case to be brought before a legal tribunal in the state of Victoria.
The case was the first to be brought under Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, which critics at the time of its drafting warned could be abused to deny Christians the freedom to question the claims or validity of other religions.
(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)
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