Leaders of the Church of England and other faith school providers are facing a challenge of failing to treat the concerns of parents, the public and fellow-believers with seriousness and respect.
A denominational representative, members of eight other religious traditions and the Christian think-tank Ekklesia are among those expressing dismay at the "dismissive" attitude of the head of the Church of England's schools board.
One minister says the Church of of England spokesperson's response to calls for faith school reform and for an end to discrimination "seems intended to bully rather than to inform."
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the inclusive schools coalition Accord, recently publicly debated faith schools issues with the Rev Jan Ainsworth from the Church's Board of Education.
The Church of England and the Catholic Church are responsible for schools which receive millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, but they retain the power to discriminate in favour of their own - and against people of different beliefs - in matters like admissions and employment.
Campaigners for the reform and improvement of schools in the interests of all parents and pupils, say that this is wrong - and Ekklesia argues that it is un-Christian.
Last week a YouGov opinion survey commissioned by Accord (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9592) showed that the great majority of the public want to see a change of policy and practice regarding denominationally-backed schools.
In the poll, 57 per cent said they thought that state-funded faith schools undermined community cohesion. A further 72 per cent thought that “all state-funded schools should operate recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on grounds of religion or belief.”
The point was reinforced by a letter in The Times newspaper (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9590) from members of nine religious traditions. They declared that ending discrimination and opening up schools to all was "a matter of faith" for them and for many others - arguing that a spiritual ethos was undermined by discriminatory practices.
The letter pointed out that the new Equality Bill allows two forms of discrimination: the ability of state-funded faith schools to reject applications from those of other religions; and the ability of voluntary-aided schools to reject qualified staff from other denominations.
The signatories wrote: “We question what sort of faith requires other schools to discriminate against children and teachers... Creating educational ghettos smacks of weak faith and is a poor recipe for social harmony.”
But the views of the public, parents and members of faith communities have so far been dismissed by church representatives.
The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Rev Jan Ainsworth, argued in an answering letter to The Times that proposals to “strip faith schools of the right to use any faith-based admissions criteria would dilute a key ingredient that can help to make these schools distinctive, popular and successful."
Accord responds that the popularity and success of some of the schools in question is a matter of demographics, not religion and Ekklesia argues that the ethos of such schools would be strengthened, not weakened by ending discrimination.
"It is a gross distortion of Christian ethics to argue that privileging one's own and pushing out others is either necessary or desirable," says Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank. "Indeed it flatly contradicts the teaching of Christianity's founder."
He added: "Unfair discrimination is not a Christian value in public life.Nor is the kind of dishonesty which some parents have to resort to in order to get their children past the local vicar and into a school where places are reserved for church children - even though the school is funded by the general taxpayer. No amount of bluster can avoid these realities."
Ms Ainsworth has accused faith school reformers of "being ignorant about education" and of ignoring evidence.
But the Rev Steve Dick, responding in The Times, criticised the Church of England education chief for deciding "to attack the character of those holding views that may differ from her own" and to respond in a way that "seems intended to bully rather than to inform."
Ekklesia's Simon Barrow says that the accusation about refusing evidence is "the reverse of the factual situation." He comments: "The Church of England has dismissed a whole series of independent reports that point in the direction of reform, sometimes before the evidence has even been set out."
The think-tank points out that the Church of England is joined in its entrenched opposition to Accord's faith school reform agenda by the National Secular Society.
While some faith school providers argue that those who want reform are part of a "secular conspiracy", the NSS has accused Accord of being "religion-dominated". Both are wrong, say campaigners.
The NSS has also dismissed appeals for change by members of faith groups and says that ending discrimination, ensuring balanced teaching of beliefs and replacing compulsory school worship with inspiring assemblies (Accord's core aims) would amount to "letting the Government off the hook and allowing the religious enthusiasts to retain their influence and once again begin building their empires of indoctrination.”
"What has become increasingly clear is that, sadly, the arguments of some who oppose faith schools reform, whether religious or non-religious, appear to be based on prejudice rather than a reasonable consideration of the facts and an attempt to ensure fairness for all," said Ekklesia's Simon Barrow.
"However, thankfully the overall debate is moving away from rigid pro and anti positions towards new possibilities of positive change," he added.
Ekklesia says that faith schools providers "should have a clear duty to engage properly with the views of the public, parents and independent researchers - because they are running taxpayer-funded services. They should be accountable and honest in the same way as we expect our elected representatives to be."
In his Times letter, the Rev Steve Dick, a Unitarian, adds: "The Anglican education officer fails to address the legitimate human rights concerns over some state-funded schools being permitted to discriminate selectively on the basis of faith against prospective students and qualified teachers seeking employment. Those are the restrictions under discussion here and to imply mistakenly that clerics speaking out for religious freedom are de facto opposed to faith schools is disingenuous."
Dick concludes: "Faith schools can preserve their distinctive character without the need to violate human rights. There are a number of successful such schools that have a faith ethos without discriminating over pupil intake.
The Accord coalition includes in its membership the ATL teaching union, the British Humanist Association, Ekklesia, and other individuals and groups from a variety of backgrounds.
It does not take a stance on the ultimate desirability or otherwise of faith schools, but seeks to bring people together for practical reform.
Accord Coalition: http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/