Mark Thomas - buys himself a priesthood

Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya and the United States: an axis of what? An axis, as it happens, of c

Whether I acted out of devilment, curiosity or perversity, I am not entirely sure, but the other day I became a priest. Some websites charge for the privilege of being ordained, but others do it for free. They even provide certificates. I am now legally entitled to minister in the US and can perform funerals, marriages and baptisms, though not, as my certificate points out, circumcision. Which is probably for the best, given my dearth of whittling skills.

Now, before the good, God-fearing readership of the New Statesman decides to get out the ducking stool, let me say that I reckon if Ian Paisley has got the right to put the academic and caring title "Doctor" in front of his name, then I have the right to put "Reverend" before mine.

It was only after becoming a priest that I realised some of the advantages, apart from the more obvious ones, such as getting free jam at fetes and no longer fearing lightning. As a priest, you can apply to have your home registered as a place of worship. Once again, the internet can provide you with all the documentation, for a small fee. Having one's home turned into a place of worship may not suit everyone. But it should be noted that places of worship are exempt from council tax. So the inconvenience of having to hold the odd service is soon outweighed by the savings incurred. Plus, you get to keep the collection.

Becoming a priest might not seem very fashionable, but it can provide opportunities for social change. For example, if lots of gay men were to become priests, they could form their own church and insist that heterosexual ministers have the right to be heterosexual, but must abstain from straight sexual practices. To be fair, though, the Catholic Church has already beaten them to this one.

The very basis of personal religious beliefs has to be that you believe in the one true God and that therefore, by default, everyone who has another god is second-rate heathen scum and will burn in the pits of hell. So if David Blunkett introduces his proposed law to make religious hatred illegal, we should all become priests, imams, rabbis or whatever. We could then be as rude as we liked about everyone's religion safe in the knowledge that we were merely engaging in theological debate. We could even swap religions, choosing the imams' light robes for the summer months, then opting for the warmth of the brazier-loving Zoroastrians as winter draws in.

The proposed law is pure electioneering.

In theory, it offers protection to the Muslim community, which just happens to be pissed off by the invasion of Iraq and the disproportionate use of "anti-terror" stop-and-searches. And on whose vote Labour can no longer count.

However, Blunkett is a rank amateur compared with President Bush. The latter's electioneering and his pandering to the Christian right in the US are in a different league. On his first day in office, Bush reintroduced the "global gag rule". This cuts off US foreign aid to any health clinic that mentions the word "abortion". No, not just clinics that perform abortions, but also those that mention them.

Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose note in their excellent book Bushwhacked that George Dubbya's next move came in July 2001. His task was simple: to find representatives for the US to sit on the World Health Organisation. So who did he pick from America's vast field of academics, diplomats and scientists who are experts on public health issues? Nobody. Bush chose Jeanne Head (previously employed by the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee), Janice Shaw Crouse (of the conservative and evangelical Concerned Women for America) and John M Klink (a former Vatican negotiator).

In May 2002, at the UN, the US sided with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya in an attempt to ban sex education for adolescents, basically saying that information about contraception and Aids should be given only to heterosexual married couples. The couples also must vow to have sex only for procreation, not to enjoy it, and to sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" before, during and after the act. OK, that last sentence is untrue. But only just.

The US swiftly followed up by cutting $37m to global population projects - and then stopped its top scientists and academics from attending this month's International Aids Conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

All this is an attempt to buy the electoral support of Christian extremists in the US. For them, sex should occur only in marriage and anyone who veers from that righteous path should suffer the wrath of God. Yet, by constraining family planning clinics, denying information and undermining the message and practice of safe sex in those areas most at risk from the Aids virus, they have increased health risks globally - and ultimately increased the numbers who will die.

There are times when religious hatred should not be illegal, but compulsory.