Deborah Orr: Believe if you will. But don't impose your ideas on others

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The Independent Online

What would Easter be without a religious spat or two? No one knows, because there hasn't been an Easter in living memory that hasn't flushed out some point of religious disgruntlement or another. Yesterday, betting shops opened on Good Friday for the first time since the Government reformed the gambling laws last year. Tomorrow Cardinal Keith O'Brien will use his Easter Sunday sermon to attack the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

Christians weren't actually being forced into the thousands of establishments that were accepting lines. But non-Christians who decided either to offer, or to take advantage, of the service are being accused of showing a lack of respect for the Son of God and His Suffering. This, in a diverse and secular society, seems just a tiny bit bossy and proscriptive. In my book, it comes under the category described recently by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a "vexatious appeal to religious scruple".

I have some sympathy with the argument of the Church of England, which suggests that the proliferation of commercial activities on national holidays erodes traditions that "help create a rhythm for the nation's life". But the plain fact is that the Christian calendar still dictates the rhythm of the nation's life to a massive degree, especially when compared to the waning influence of the church in other public spheres. Attempts by the religious establishment to enact some kind of three-line whip on people who are tolerant of the fact that their leisure time follows a pattern laid down by a belief system they do not adhere to are pushing matters too far.

It's all especially irritating when religious adherents are so huffy when they are asked to submit to a three-line whip themselves. A number of Labour MPs have decided, like the Cardinal, that Easter is the perfect time to complain. Their beef is about Gordon Brown's refusal to offer a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which contains a number of proposals that are contrary to the teachings of the Catholic church.

Labour MPs including cabinet members Ruth Kelly, Paul Murphy and Des Browne are said to be unhappy, both about the clauses that remove discrimination against lesbians seeking IVF, and those that loosen some restrictions around the creation of embryos for scientific or medical purposes.

They are not being obliged to vote in favour of these legislative moves, and are perfectly at liberty to exercise their religious objections by not voting at all. That doesn't appear to be good enough for them, though. They wish to parade how much more important their Catholic beliefs are to them than their parliamentary duties. Only a hazy belief in the sanctity of embryonic life or a crystal-clear belief in the sanctity of homophobia could possibly be considered as genuine objections to this legislation. Even the clause that removes the obligation of IVF clinics to "consider a child's right to have a father" is a red herring, as all people conceived using donors have the right now to know who their father is.

None of this should have a place in the Labour Party (or the Lib Dems, for that matter, who are expected to offer a free vote, like the Conservatives). Yet even though there is no purely rational and non-discriminatory argument against this legislation, some Labour MPs are said to be considering resignation over the Bill. Good. If they cannot reach a reasonable accommodation between being a public member of a socially progressive party, and also a private member of a socially conservative church, then that would certainly be the best way in which to express with clarity where their primary loyalties lie.

Good sense and common consensus decrees that whatever one's private beliefs, one must live under the rule of law. It is, therefore, extremely important that the rule of law is not distorted by those who consider their religious beliefs to be of greater importance than their democratic obligations as law-makers.

No Christian is being made to bet over Easter, to collude in the creation of a "saviour sibling", or to set up a lesbian home. All that is being asked is that Christians refrain from attempting to impose their own religious prejudices on others. I don't in the least want people to be persecuted for their spiritual beliefs. Nor do I want people to be persecuted for their rejection of them. If certain Labour parliamentarians showed any understanding of the fact that this is the only civilised way in which pluralist societies can thrive, then there would be no need for a three-line whip at all. It is a pity that there is.

Let down by women who carp about other women

If the crass behaviour of anyone has ever prompted the assertion that he has "let down all men", then I'm afraid I've forgotten it, and them. So I wasy nonplussed by widespread claims this week that Heather Mills has "let down all women". I'm not entirely sure that Ms Mills has even let down all one-legged, emotionally unstable, former wives of members of the Beatles, so I have to say that I cannot agree.

The argument goes that in being such a greedy little gold-digger, Mills has put men off marriage even more than ever. (Greed, after all, is an exclusively female trait, unknown to anyone except hedge-fund managers, MPs, MEPs, users of Sainsbury's cash machines, people on incapacity benefit, non-doms, tax exiles, sub-prime mortgage brokers and a few other isolated exceptions.) Since all women want nothing more than to snare a reluctant life partner who will look after her for ever no matter what, Mills has damaged all women's chances of doing so. Grrr.

The Daily Mail's Amanda Platell, on Radio Five Live, went as far as to declare that she has received copious correspondence from mothers who were desperately worried that their sons might fall into the clutches of women like Heather, and busily counselled them to "be careful". One cannot help thinking that Heather, cannot have let down these women, who have no doubt been doing their best all their lives to assure their sons that females are nothing but trouble, except for their mums, of course.

If I believed it was possible for individuals to "let down all women", I'd be tempted to suggest that the damage is being done by those ladies who choose to portray Heather as anything except the total one-off that she is. And who'd want to marry a man who imagined that Heather might be a typical woman anyway? Frankly, the charidee avenger might have done a few love-sick housewives-in-waiting a favour.

Personally, I can't begin to imagine how anyone brings up a family without the benefit of wedlock. Just this week, my six-year-old threw up copiously in the bath, and I had no alternative but to retrieve what seemed like half-a-pound of semi-masticated bread and cheese from the plug-hole.

"Look at this – Bath-O-Vom," I yelled cheerily to my husband, as he tried to sneak past the bathroom door.

"Do remember to wash your hands when you've finished that," he offered as he passed quickly on. Who could put a price on such wise counsel, and such splendid support?

* Only a few weeks ago, the spectacle of the US Democratic nominations seemed to most interested spectators like an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. It has settled instead into a stomach-churning journey along a lost highway, as the two contenders bicker among themselves in the back of the car, oblivious to the fact that the Republicans are driving.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, pictured, are squandering time and money on their personal tussle, and doing their best to undermine each other. Meanwhile, their real rival, John McCain, amasses his war chest, plans for the election that really matters, and looks on with satisfaction as his divided opponents do his dirty work for him.

Any hope that Clinton and Obama might stand on a double ticket grows less credible by the day. Modest and selfless as these two implacable contenders for the leadership of the world's most powerful nation might claim to be, neither of them is at all minded to put their party and their country before their personal ambitions, and decide to settle for what is surely a not inconsiderable consolation prize.

I'm not a great admirer of Clinton, and I also understand that the age of chivalry is dead. But I cannot help thinking that Obama has many more years ahead of him, as far as his presidential ambitions are concerned, while Clinton's in the last-chance saloon. Logic dictates that Obama has much more to gain, in the long run, from a graceful step backwards. It's an audaciously hopeful person indeed who thinks the next US presidency, whoever lands it, is going to be a picnic anyway.

* Easy Living magazine features in its next issue a portrait of a naked Amy Winehouse, pictured, promoting breast cancer care. I can't think of a single other person I'd be more likely to turn to for health tips. They say the unexamined life is not worth living, but some celebrity endorsements take the old adage a wee bit too far.

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