You cannot make Christian or any other kind of worship mandatory in public institutions, and confusing worship with a collective assembly or with broad spiritual and moral development of school children is a mistake - that has been the response of both religious and non-religious groups to a statement this week from five denominations calling on the government to strengthen daily 'collective worship' in England's publicly-funded schools.
In a fresh initiative, representatives of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church and the Baptist Union have signed a joint letter to new Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Alan Johnson MP, calling for a greater investment in training and resources for school staff charged with organising collective worship.
The churches' position paper accompanying the letter also calls on other groups, from any faith backgrounds or none, to support the call for action by the government. The signatories include the Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson, Anglican Bishop of Portsmouth, and the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham.
The paper argues that that school worship helps promote tolerance and understanding, prepares students for adult life by giving them an opportunity to express their spiritual nature, provides a means of developing an appreciation that goes beyond the material world, fosters a concern for others and provides a forum for exploring shared values.
But critics, including teachers, trade unions, religious bodies, the British Humanist Association and the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia, say that this is a hopelessly confused view.
They point out that any apparent inclusive educational aims are fatally compromised by the legal requirement, stemming from the 1944 Education Act, that an assembly must include an 'act of worship' which should be 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character'.
Ekklesia's co-director Simon Barrow says: "Mandating common worship is inappropriate for public institutions made up of people from different world views and faith backgrounds. It is also a complete misrepresentation of what worship - the freely offered act of a confessional community - is, in any recognised religion."
He continues: "The churches' attempt to defend the status quo on this issue is another example of the 'Christendom mentality' - one which works against the grain of a plural society and, from a specifically Christian viewpoint, undermines the subversive, levelling dynamic of the Gospel, substituting for it an establishment creed."
Ekklesia is also writing to the Secretary of State. It says that what is needed within the publicly-funded school system is an informed, non-confessional approach to education about religious and non-religious life stances; collective assemblies which include and represent different approaches; the development of critical and appreciative thinking among children; contacts with local civic and religious bodies; and provision for the needs and pastoral care of particular communities (both religious and non-religious) in ways which advantage all.
Adds Barrow: "At the moment it rather looks as if church leaders are seeking to salvage their troubled institutions by maintaining a privileged position within the school system - rather than focussing on what they need to do in their own churches and communities to develop their particular vocation and pedagogy. This is misplaced energy."
Ekklesia says that the role of publicly funded schools is to offer a level playing field, to encourage enquiring minds, to model mutual respect and to provide a range of pastoral support - as well as enabling understanding of different traditions of moral, spiritual, social, cultural and personal development.
By contrast, "the specific job of developing and promoting particular faith understandings is a matter of the performance of religious communities within the civic arena - it is not something that can be imposed on schools which are meant to be there for all."
Recent research based on OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education) inspections has revealed that many secondary schools struggle to meet the current legal obligation for 'collective worship'. Teachers are also frequently uncomfortable.
The Church of England says that this is because they are insufficiently prepared, and need additional training. Others, including teaching unions representatives, argue that is because the provision itself is unfair and unworkable and needs to be changed.
John Dunford, from the Association of School and College Leaders, told BBC Radio 4 this week: "We have a very silly law; we already have an obligation to encourage the [broader] spiritual development of pupils, which is much more important."
Meanwhile the British Humanist Association has also written about the issue to the minister responsible, Alan Johnson MP, whose mail box appears to be full to overflowing in the aftermath of PM Tony Blair's recent cabinet re-shuffle.
The BHA supports the educational value of school assemblies and their role in building shared values and the school community, but without the element of collective worship. In this way, it argues, assemblies can be genuinely inclusive of the whole school community with no (as under the present system) for withdrawals and determinations.
BHA education and public affairs officer Andrew Copson points out that some Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (of which there are over 100 responsible for advising Local Education Authorities) are acutely aware of the problem and sometimes offer resources and "very good advice on how to conduct inclusive assemblies."
It is a great pity, he adds, that "practice which is workable, honest and educationally and socially valuable, remains illegal and is sometimes subject to criticism from OFSTED."
The OFSTED review of secondary schools in England, 1993-1997 (published as Secondary Education in 1998) notes the widespread non-compliance with the requirements for collective worship and says that this "raises questions about the  Act and its interpretation, and in particular whether schools in a broadly secular society can or should bring their pupils together in order to engage in worship. For Roman Catholic, Church of England and other denominational schools the answer is clear in principle. For most LEA and grant maintained schools, however, the notion of worship, and indeed that of prayer, can be problematic at both an institutional and a personal level."
This OFSTED review reports that in the year 1996-7, just over 70% of secondary schools showed evidence of non-compliance in collective worship. However, 90% of primary schools were found to be complying with the law.
Ekklesia argues that the continuing fusion of church and state in England is a major part of the confusion about education and many other current issues. Co-director Jonathan Bartley's forthcoming book, Faith and Politics After Christendom , argues for a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and public life.
[Also on Ekklesia: Concerns raised about school segregation by race and faith  09/06/06; New education minister walks into row on faith schools ; Call for non-religious chaplains in education and beyond ; Why education should not divide on faith  (Andrew Copson); Humanists and Christians argue against faith schools ; Government plans reopen debate on faith schools ; UK debate about faith schools hots up ; Statement on religious education opens church schools up to charges of double-standards ; Faith schools ñ pluralism or privilege? ; Leading Scottish Christian voices opposition to faith schools ; Senior clergy may reignite controversy over faith schools ; Church schools should end discrimination says Government adviser ; Exam Board rules out creationism in UK classrooms ; Faith schools ñ pluralism or privilege? ; Schools minister says creationism has no place in classroom science ]