A row has erupted over correspondence issued by the Catholic Education Service to nearly 400 Catholic schools in England and Wales which asked them to ‘draw the attention’ of pupils to the Coalition for Marriage’s anti-equality petition, first revealed by PinkNews.co.uk yesterday.

Several organisations believe the action may have violated education and equality laws, suggestions denied by the Catholic body.

The Catholic Education Service is the government liaison agency for the Catholic bishops in England and Wales for the support and promotion of Catholic education.

Last month, it wrote to between 359 and 389 Catholic secondary schools asking them to “draw attention generally” to the Coalition for Marriage petition and to a letter by the Archbishop of Westminster which spoke of a Catholic “duty” to ensure the “true meaning of marriage” is not lost by allowing gay couples to marry.

A sixth form student told PinkNews.co.uk yesterday her school was “urging impressionable people to engage in discrimination”, encouraging pupils to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition.

The British Humanist Association said it believes such actions may have violated section 149 of the Equality Act which prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and sections 406-7 of the Education Act 1996, which forbid the “promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”, and requires balanced treatment of political issues.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson said: “This action by the Catholic Education Service is absolutely outrageous. Not only might this break equalities legislation, it also breaks laws against political partisanship. If any pupil at one of the schools concerned is interested in challenging this practice at law, we urge them to get in touch with us.”

The eQuality project, part of London’s LGBT mental health charity PACE, said putting pressure on young people to respond in a particular way to the equal marriage question could make it hard for those who have different views to voice them safely.

Tim Eastwood, eQuality Co-ordinator said: “Positioning young people in such a way as to encourage discrimination is clearly going to result in further inequality, in a society which prides itself on being equal and just.”

eQuality questioned whether the school in question yesterday at which pupils were said to have been “encouraged” to sign the petition, could have instead directed them to the Home Office public consultation on marriage equality, where they could respond “in a way which encourages thoughtfulness and analysis”.

Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE said: “Schools should teach about a range of religious and cultural perspectives surrounding matters of sexual diversity and gender. However, first and foremost, they should have a duty to promote an acceptance of sexual diversity and transgendered people that should trump all other considerations, which should be embraced with enthusiasm.

“When many LGBT staff and pupils have a concealed miserable experience at school, and we know that homophobia is worse within the faith school sector, it seems therefore all the more inappropriate that the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales should ask Catholic schools to advance a one sided perspective on same sex marriage, and for their pupils to advance this as a political aim.

“The Education Service have shown a shocking disregard for the condition of LGBT people; have failed to properly embrace the much more important obligation of ensuring that everyone is treated with respect and kindness, and in doing so have undermined public trust.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society also criticised the move, saying today: “This is a clear breach of the authority and privilege that the Catholic Education Service has been given in schools. Surely it is no part of its remit to promote a specific political campaign from this purely sectarian viewpoint. It is disgraceful that children are being encouraged into bigotry when they are attending a state school paid for by taxpayers.”

He added: “The CES must withdraw this letter and undertake never again to use schools for ideological campaigning. Children go to school to be educated, not to be taught how to be bigots. According to recent research, most Catholics do not support the Church’s stance on equal marriage – were they consulted before this was foisted on their children?”

The National Secular Society said it has written to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, requesting that he take immediate action.

The Catholic Education Service issued a statement today saying the Archbishops’ letter, as well as the Coalition for Marriage campaign, is a “positive affirmation of marriage”.

It said: “We reject the suggestion that Catholic schools have acted illegally. The Equality Act 2010 applies to all schools and we are fully supportive of the Act. It is central to Catholic teaching that all individuals should be treated with respect and dignity.

“Catholic state schools have always been permitted by law to teach matters relating to sex and relationships education, including the importance of marriage, in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church’s view on the importance of marriage is a religious view, not a political one.”

The Catholic Education Service’s deputy director was not aware of the age restriction on the Coalition for Marriage petition when contacted by PinkNews.co.uk yesterday about the presentation a Catholic state school in south London had given to girls as young as 11 which ended with the words “Sign the petition”.

It said of the petition, which has 467,000 signatures, today: “The online petition itself makes it clear that people under the age of 16 cannot sign it. We will issue new guidance for our schools to ensure that they are aware of this.”

Of the 800,000 pupils in state-funded Catholic education across England and Wales, 339,500 pupils attend the secondary schools which were asked to draw attention to the anti-gay marriage petition.

Around 10 percent of state school pupils in England and Wales attend a Catholic school.

Greg Pope, Deputy Director of the Catholic Education Service, told PinkNews.co.uk this afternoon they were “strong supporters” of the Equality Act and that pupils were valued regardless of protected characteristics like race, gender and sexual orientation, but he added that it was “enshrined in law that Catholic schools can teach the faith”.