The religious are rallying by torchlight outside parliament this evening. In the Lords they are trying to strike out regulations in the new equality act that outlaw discrimination and harassment of gays, making it illegal to discriminate in providing any goods and services to anyone, from healthcare to hotel rooms. This is a mighty test of strength between the religious and the secular. Any peers against discrimination, get on down the Lords: the vote is at 7.30pm. Will the Tories prove to be gay-friendly?
Christians, Muslims and Jews are all fighting against the sexual orientation regulations with a wrecking clause that would render them meaningless: "Nothing in these regulations shall force an individual to act against their conscience or strongly held religious beliefs." Anyone could use their "conscience" to discriminate against gays.
Get one thing clear: this law does not stop religions from banning gays joining their congregations or becoming priests. (Though they don't seem to be very good at it.) But it does oblige any organisation or business offering services to the public to offer them equally to all comers. Bizarre and repugnant ads in newspapers from Christian organisers have spread outright lies about what this law does. Their campaign, strongly supported by the Daily Mail, has whipped up a degree of homophobia still lurking under an apparently tolerant surface. The gay rights group Stonewall has been horrified at the resurgence of threats and obscene abuse.
To make their case, the religious have struggled to think up extreme scenarios where the law might affect them, but each has proved to be wrong, as ministers have refuted them all.
They claim the law will "force all schools to actively promote homosexual civil partnerships to children (from primary-school age) to the same degree that they teach the importance of marriage". No it won't: the curriculum does not "actively promote" homosexuality, nor even make sex education compulsory. They claim the law will "force a printing shop run by a Christian to print fliers promoting gay sex". No it won't, unless the same printers promote heterosexual porn too. Or how about this one? "Force a family-run B&B to let out a double room to a transsexual couple, even if the family think it in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow such a situation in their home." Oh no it won't: it doesn't even cover transsexuals - and what a daft scenario anyway. The National Secular Society has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. But on and on go the prurient situations the religious homophobes dream up. The Christian Concern for Our Nation, petitioning the Queen, claims they "love their neighbours", but "Christians, of course, earnestly desire the repentance and salvation of homosexuals".
None of this might matter much if it were just about the strange practices in private of religious bigots. But faith groups already run and are bidding to take over many more social services. If they win this debate, free to discriminate as they please, they will prove themselves utterly unfit to provide state services or receive state funding.
Lord Ferrers in the last debate said hospitals should be allowed to discriminate if they had a Christian ethos. Does that mean they do now? Are they turning away gay Aids patients? He said a pro-life Catholic hospital should be allowed to turn away a lesbian for fertility treatment. (Though any non-Catholic turning to Catholics for fertility treatment needs their head examined.) The Catholic adoption society said it will shut up shop if it has to allow gay couples to apply. Churches say they will never let out a hall to a gay organisation. Christians running soup kitchens say they want to refuse gays shelter and soup. (Soup!) The Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool threatens to withdraw all cooperation over schools and charity programmes if the law goes through. The Bishop of Rochester says it will damage church work in inner cities. (Only if his church shuts down services.) The C of E pretends that the law would force it to bless civil unions (it won't).
Listen to all these good reasons why the state should step back from its current infatuation with faith provision of social services. In a democracy, public services paid for out of general taxes can't be held to ransom by the weird sexual fantasies of unelected service providers. These faith groups are now showing exactly why they should not be running an ever growing number of schools and academies. Homophobic bullying is rife in schools: 15-25 children a year kill themselves due to bullying, many, if not most, tormented because they are perceived to be gay. So why are we putting state schools into the hands of organisations that openly preach homophobia as a creed so holy it trumps all their other good works?
Recently there has been an organised upsurge of religions protesting at secularism. Nothing surprising about a fightback from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rest against what they claim is militant secularism. That's their job. The recent Guardian ICM poll showed 63% are non-believers, with 82% regarding religion as the cause of division. Fighting back on these pages, Tobias Jones intemperately called secularists totalitarian dictators pretending to be tolerant. However, secularists are not threatening to deny services to the religious: it is they who want to discriminate. Keeping the public sphere free of dogmas is not a denial of the right of anyone to act as they please - so long as they don't harm others.
More alarming is the backsliding of liberal and left thinkers on religion. Neal Lawson, an atheist from leftist pressure group Compass, laid into secularism on these pages. He is right that many religious groups do good work in the toughest inner-city areas. But how depressing to suggest that moral leadership now only resides among the faiths. Indignation about social injustice may be lacking in politics, but today the faiths use their greatest firepower not to challenge gross inequality. No, what ignites their torchlit excitement is, yet again, other people's sexuality. Given an ounce of power they abuse it to deny basic liberties. Last year, they rallied to refuse the right to die with dignity. Now they are back harassing gays. Religion may appeal to some on the left yearning for moral certainty in a complicated world. But today's debate will be a sharp reminder of the intolerance and illiberalism that comes with it. Get on down the Lords for 7.30, you peers!