Terry Sanderson: I know a boat you can get on....

Speaking to the House of Commons public administration select committee, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, said there was “no doubt'‘ numbers of religious believers in Britain were “extraordinarily'‘ low. But rather than blame himself and other religious leaders for driving people away, he suggested that it was, in fact, because religious freedom was being undermined by equality legislation.

Lord Sacks joins the small but vociferous chorus of religious extremists who are trying to undermine equal rights legislation, particularly protection for gay people.

He said: “I share a real concern that the attempt to impose the current prevailing template of equality and discrimination on religious organisations is an erosion of religious liberty. We are beginning to move back to where we came in the 17th century – a whole lot of people on the Mayflower leaving to find religious freedom elsewhere.”

I was given — in my role as NSS president — the opportunity in the Daily Telegraph to respond to Lord Sacks. I said his remarks were “fatuous” and that he should withdraw them. He obviously has no idea of how lucky he, a confidante of the previous Prime Minister, is to live in a tolerant and secularised nation likeBritain. No-one is interfering with his right to worship or practice his religion and, in fact, his religion enjoys many privileges.

This chorus of bigotry hiding under a religious cloak must be challenged. If we do not contradict this idea that ‘religious freedom’ means the right to persecute and cause disadvantage to other people, then we will see the Government eventually beginning to dismantle our human rights legislation.

My message to Lord Sacks, Andrea Minichielo Williams, Lord Carey, the Christian Institute and all the other whingers is this: if you really think life in this country is intolerable and want to go somewhere else where your prejudices — sorry, religious freedom — can be expressed unfettered, let me quote the song from West Side Story: “I know a boat you can get on. Bye-bye.”

Terry Sanderson is President of the National Secular Society