Incitement to religious hatred will today become a criminal offence in England and Wales with the commencement of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act.
The Act creates a new offence of intentionally stirring up religious hatred against people on religious grounds, closing a gap in the current legislation.
Existing offences in the Public Order 1986 Act legislate against inciting racial hatred. Jews and Sikhs have been deemed by the courts to be racial groups and are protected under this legislation, but other groups such as Muslims and Christians are considered to be religious rather than racial groups and have therefore not previously received any protection under the law.
The new Act will give protection to these groups by outlawing the use of threatening words or behaviour intended to incite hatred against groups of people defined by their religious beliefs or lack of belief.
The new law however explicitly does not outlaw 'expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions'.
The new offence therefore has an even higher threshold than the race hatred offence, recognising that religious beliefs are a legitimate subject of vigorous public debate.
Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker said: "This Act closes this small but important gap in the law against extremists who stir up hatred in our communities. To be attacked or targeted because of your race or religion is wholly unacceptable.
"It can have a devastating effect on victims who can find themselves on the receiving end of bigotry and hatred.
"We are committed to protecting everyone in our society and legislating against this abhorrent behaviour. Our overarching goal is to build a civilised society where we can all achieve our potential free from prejudice."