Would anyone ever have imagined that one day it would become illegal in Britain to teach children to follow precepts laid down in the Bible?
Or that a priest, a rabbi or an imam might fall foul of the law by refusing to bless a sexual union between same-sex couples?
Yet that appears to be precisely what may happen as a result of new regulations soon to be introduced by the Government – and all under the rubric, would you believe, of producing a more tolerant and free society.
The Government has just finished consulting on new draft regulations under the Equality Act that would make it illegal to refuse to provide goods or services to anyone on the grounds of sexual orientation. The ostensible aim of these provisions is to end discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. No one should support irrational and bigoted prejudice against these or any other minorities.
But one of the unforeseen side-effects of anti-discrimination laws is the way they have turned our very understanding of prejudice and discrimination inside-out. Starting with the entirely laudable objective of eradicating discrimination against minorities, they have been transformed instead into a weapon promoting discrimination against both majority and minority religious faiths.
It should go without saying that gay people and other sexual minorities should be free to practise their sexuality without being picked on in any way. What they do in private should be of concern to no one else. But equally, others must be free to voice disapproval of their lifestyles, particularly where this is a key element of religious faith. For like it or not (and this is, of course, an issue which is currently tearing the Church of England apart) the belief that homosexual behaviour is wrong is a tenet that is fundamental to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The new regulations, however, would make it impossible for Christians, Jews and Muslims to continue to live according to this belief.
This is because, although religious faiths gained an exemption under the Equality Act itself, which otherwise would have threatened to outlaw the promotion of religion altogether, no such exemption has been granted over the issue of sexual orientation – which also covers sexual behaviour.
So church schools, for example, are protesting that they will no longer be permitted to teach in sex education or RE lessons that homosexuality is at odds with the teachings of the Bible. They might have to comply with parental demands that there should be lessons promoting gay issues – for example, by taking part in the recent ‘Lesbian, Bi-sexual Gay and Transsexual History Month’.
Remember the epic battle over Clause 28, the law which forbade the promotion of homosexuality in schools and which was eventually repealed, in a notable triumph for the gay rights lobby? Well, these new regulations would be a Clause 28 in reverse. They would compel the promotion of homosexuality in schools – and forbid the promotion of Christian or other religious beliefs on the matter.
Lawyers say that the regulations would mean churches, mosques or synagogues would be breaking the law if they refused to hire out their halls for gay civil partnership ceremonies. Clergymen would be compelled to bless ‘gay marriages’ on pain of breaking the law. It might even become illegal for a priest to refuse to give communion to someone on the grounds that they were a practising gay or lesbian.
In other words, it would become an act of illegality to put into practice a cardinal tenet of religious faith, including the Christianity that is the established faith of this country and which underpins its values and lies at the very core of its identity.
We have therefore exchanged one deep intolerance for another. Behaviour that was once considered socially unacceptable and even illegal must now be promoted as an acceptable lifestyle choice, and anyone who disagrees is to fall foul of the law instead.
Yes, gays and other sexual minorities should have full equality before the law. But that means they should not be treated aggressively or unfairly by being singled out for different treatment in areas of life where they are playing the same part as everyone else.
But the equality argument breaks down when it insists that everyone is entitled to receive precisely the same treatment despite the fact that their lifestyles may be radically different. This is not equality, but what might be called ‘identicality’, or the enforcement of sameness even where circumstances are not the same at all.
Far from being fair, this is both fundamentally unfair and socially destructive. By insisting that sexual minorities are treated in an identical fashion to the majority, mainstream values are knocked off their perch.
That is why the antidiscrimination agenda is actually a weapon aimed squarely at the bedrock values of this society.
That is the problem with the gay rights programme. It does not preach tolerance for gays; instead, it stands for the destruction of the very notion that heterosexuality is the norm.
That is why ‘gay marriage’ or civil union represents such a threat to our society. Under the attractive guise of promoting equality, it actually represents an attempt to undermine the special status in our society of a permanent, faithful sexual union between a man and a woman.
And that is why David Cameron’s reported views are so disappointing. In a speech this week, Mr Cameron – who once again wrapped himself in the mantle of family man yesterday and spoke of finding new ways to support family life – is expected to say he would give gay couples the same rights as heterosexuals, including the same tax perks for civil partnerships as there are for marriage.
Mr Cameron wants to convey the message that the Tories are no longer prejudiced against gay people. Nor should they be. But is supporting a policy that undermines family life the best way to go about this? Is he really saying that gay partnerships are the same in value as heterosexual marriage? Is he really saying that two gay men raising children is equivalent in value to a mother and father raising their own?
What would he say, for example, about the former chairman of the South Yorkshire Family Panel, who resigned because he was told he had to approve the same-sex adoption of children? He sought a compromise under which he would adjudicate only on cases of heterosexual adoption, but was refused.
He is now suing the Lord Chancellor’s department, arguing that his right to act on his conscience and his religious beliefs have been infringed.
His case perfectly illustrates the grotesque situation we are now in, where under the guise of preventing discrimination, the state is actually enforcing discrimination against someone who merely wants to provide children with the healthiest environment in which to grow up.
The equality agenda is presented as ushering in a new era of tolerance and equality. But this is not so. Instead, it has elevated the rights of sexual minorities above the rights of religious believers.
This is because it is a specific attempt to secularise our society. Religious belief is thus relabelled as prejudice and duly outlawed.
But religious freedom and freedom of conscience are crucial to a liberal society. Once, religious wars took them away. Now they are being stamped out by secular law – and with them goes the bedrock of our liberty.