British comedian Rowan Atkinson -- creator of the hapless "Mr Bean" -- attacked a planned law outlawing incitement of religious hatred on Dec. 6, saying it would curb free speech and humour.

LONDON (Reuters) -- British comedian Rowan Atkinson -- creator of the hapless "Mr Bean" -- attacked a planned law outlawing incitement of religious hatred on Dec. 6, saying it would curb free speech and humour.

Atkinson believes the measure now passing through parliament will make religion virtually off-limits to satirists.

He fears it might even lead to prosecutions, not only for some of his own sketches but for others like Monty Python's "Life of Brian," which was criticized on its release in 1979 for being anti-Christian.

"Freedom of expression must be protected for artists and entertainers," he said. "We must not accept a bar on the lampooning of religion and religious leaders."

The 49-year-old Atkinson, who rose to fame as the scheming and self-serving "Blackadder" in a lampoon of British history, has joined lawmakers and Christian groups in a campaign against the bill.

At present, British law prohibits attacks on people's color, race or ethnic origin but not their religion. Critics of the plan to include religion believe a new law is not necessary.

"There is an obvious difference between the behavior 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..," Atkinson said in a statement.

"It is one of the reasons why we have free speech."

FREE SPEECH

The British Humanist Assn. have backed Atkinson's campaign, saying the law would deny people the right to legitimately question and criticize different religions.

But the Home Office denied the accusation, saying the law would protect "people, not ideologies."

"The government is determined to preserve the right to engage in free and vigorous debate about religion, including the right to criticize religious beliefs and practices," a spokesman said.

The proposals were welcomed by the majority of Britain's religious communities -- particularly its 1.8 million Muslims who say they have been subjected to a surge in abuse since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Critics of the law, which has been included in the Serious Organized Crime and Police Bill, say there is already enough legislation to deal with attacks on religion.

The government first tried to introduce laws banning religious discrimination in 2001, but the House of Lords, Britain's upper parliamentary chamber, blocked the proposal.