Leading Church of England bishops have claimed that equality laws mean gay rights are being “privileged” over the rights of Christians.

The figures, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey and Bishop of Winchester Michael Scott-Joynt, said that gay rights supporters are able to “suppress all disagreement or disapproval and ‘coerce silence’.”

They wrote to the Sunday Telegraph in support of Eunice and Owen Johns, a Christian couple from Derby who were told by the city council that they could not foster children because of their views on homosexuality.

Mrs Johns said her Christian beliefs would not allow her to tell foster children that being gay is acceptable. The couple will go to the High Court today in a test case to ask whether Derby city council can bar them from fostering.

The senior clerics’ letter said: “On Monday the High Court is to be asked to rule on whether Christians are ‘fit people’ to adopt or foster children – or whether they will be excluded, regardless of the needs of children, from doing so because of the requirements of homosexual rights.

“The case involves Derby city council and Eunice and Owen Johns, both highly experienced foster carers, but whose traditional Christian views have left them penalised under legislation enacted by the former government in the name of equality.

“This ‘equality’, however, privileges homosexual rights over those of others, even though the Office for National Statistics has subsequently shown homosexuals to be just one in 66 of the population.”

It added: “Research clearly establishes that children flourish best in a family with both a mother and father in a committed relationship.

“A commitment to respecting conscience is the essence of civil liberty. The supporters of homosexual rights cannot be allowed to suppress all disagreement or disapproval and “coerce silence”.

There is a ‘clash of rights’, which the court must settle. If the court believes that those with traditional Christian views on homosexuality can be discriminated against, the state has taken a position on a moral question, namely that such religious belief is problematic.”

Earlier this year, Lord Carey called for judges dealing with cases where religious beliefs and homosexuality clash to step aside.

In a witness statement for a councillor who was sacked after he refused to work with gay couples, Lord Carey said such cases should be heard by a panel of five judges with understanding of religious issues.

He added: “This type of ‘reasoning’ is dangerous to the social order and represents clear animus to Christian beliefs. The fact that senior clerics of the Church of England and other faiths feel compelled to intervene directly in judicial decisions and cases is illuminative of a future civil unrest.”