A statement from three senior bishops calls on peers today to retain and even widen religious exemptions on employing gay people.

The statement, issued on behalf of the Bishop of Winchester Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Exeter Michael Langrish and the Bishop of Chester Peter Forster, said that churches had to be able to “appoint and employ people consistently with their guiding doctrine and ethos”.

Currently, churches may discriminate when hiring gay people.

Provisions in the Equality Bill, which is passing through the House of Lords, will require that churches may only discriminate in terms of sexual orientation when hiring those who will teach doctrine or lead worship.

The changes will mean that staff such as youth workers, janitors and administrative workers cannot be refused employment due to their sexuality.

The statement warned that religions would be more likely to be sued if restrictions were placed on their ability to select staff and called on peers to support three amendments tabled by Tory peer Baroness O’Cathain, one of which would remove the stipulation that exemptions would apply only to senior staff.

The National Secular Society attacked the statement to failing to mention the fact that the govenment may be subject to legal action if it does not change the law on religious employment.

The government has already been warned twice by the European Commission to bring the law into line with an equality directive.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “If the government accedes to the bishops’ demands it is likely that it will be prosecuted by the European Court of Justice.

“The Church is so obsessed with homosexuality it will stop at nothing to pressurise the government. Contrary to the bishop’s claims, the current regulations give religious bodies carte blanche to discriminate and do not make any explicit limitations at all.

“The bishops say that the government has produced no ‘convincing case for change’, but [they] conveniently ignore the impending threat of prosecution from the European Court of Justice.”

Baroness O’Cathain’s amendments will be debated today in the Lords, along with one from out gay Labour peer Lord Waheed Alli, which proposes removing entirely the right of religious to stipulate any employee’s sexual orientation.