The head teacher of a Devon school has defended its actions in relation to the mother of a young child who upset a classmate by telling her that she would "go to hell" if she did not believe in God and Jesus.
Gary Read, head teacher of Landscore Primary School, Threshers, in Credition, says he spoke "respectfully" to parent Jennie Cain - also the school receptionist - after her daughter had made the remark, and after the child herself was told it was inappropriate.
Mrs Cain, who says her five-year-old's religious beliefs are "not being respected" is being backed by Christian campaigners who say that this is another case of "persecution" against Christians.
But the school strongly denies this. Its governors are also challenging Mrs Cain over remarks she made about it's handling of the issue in an email sent to friends, which has been forwarded to them.
Mrs Cain has not been suspended or disciplined, but she did not go into school yesterday after the publicity.
Mr Read, the headteacher, explained: "We have 271 children in our school from a diversity of backgrounds... We encourage children to discuss their beliefs. What we do not condone is one child frightening a six-year-old with the prospect of 'going to hell' if she does not believe in God."
He added: “We are a very, very open school and are in no way intimidating people. Unfortunately the context of the conversation between the two girls had a religious nature, but it could have been over any issue. When one pupil is upset by another and is crying, we take action.
“In absolutely no way are we trying to suppress discussion or make it difficult for pupils to discuss or express faith. The school has had a lot of support from teachers and parents.”
Many media reports of the incident have so far downplayed the question of offence and fright, concentrating on allegations that the school told off the child for "talking about God" - the headline in the Exeter Express and Echo this morning.
The Telegraph reported the incident yesterday but made no reference to the "going to hell" remark. The exact wording of the conversation is now being disputed.
Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu has weighed into the dispute in support of the parent. And MP Ann Widdicombe, a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, has referred to the schools's actions as "Christianophobia".
But Simon Barrow of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia commented: "Before shouting 'persecution' Christians need to reflect much more seriously on how they would feel if their children received similar treatment by non-believers or those of other faiths, and the school tolerated it.
"The issue here seems to be that one young child frightened another. It is surely right that behaviour of this kind is respectfully challenged. I am sure the great majority of Christian parents will want to encourage children to speak with love and respect, rather than condemnation, towards others."
Also available from Ekklesia:
Simon Barrow, 'Scaring the hell out of kids?' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8654
Randy Klassen, What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell? Wrestling with the traditional view (Cascadia, 2001) - http://tinyurl.com/c5hgbf
An Anabaptist scholar and pastor examines carefully all significant references to hell in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, showing that none provides clear evidence for the commonly held view of hell - which turns out to be contrary to the central message of Jesus and the Gospels.