Six prominent bishops and Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, describe the “discrimination” against churchgoers as “unacceptable in a civilised society”.
In a thinly-veiled attack on Labour, they claim that traditional beliefs on issues such as marriage are no longer being upheld and call on the major parties to address the issue in the run-up to the general election.
In a letter to The Sunday Telegraph, the bishops express their deep disquiet at the double standards of public sector employers, claiming that Christians are punished while followers of other faiths are treated far more sensitively.
Their intervention follows a series of cases in which Christians have been dismissed after seeking to express their faith. They highlight the plight of Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was banned from working on hospital wards for wearing a cross around her neck. This week she will begin a legal battle against the decision.
Christians are also increasingly concerned that the Government is ignoring their views on issues such as sex education and homosexuality when introducing new legislation.
A group of 640 head teachers, school governors and faith leaders have signed a separate letter to this newspaper warning that compulsory sex education in primary schools will erode moral standards and encourage sexual experimentation.
They call for the dropping of legislation that will see children as young as seven taught about sex and relationships.
In their letter, the bishops urge the Government to stop the persecution of Christians.
“We are deeply concerned at the apparent discrimination shown against Christians and we call on the Government to remedy this serious development.
“In a number of cases, Christian beliefs on marriage, conscience and worship are simply not being upheld.
“There have been numerous dismissals of practising Christians from employment for reasons that are unacceptable in a civilised country.”
In addition to Lord Carey, the letter has been signed by the Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester; the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester; the Rt Rev Peter Forster, the Bishop of Chester; the Rt Rev Anthony Priddis, the Bishop of Hereford; the Rt Rev Nicholas Reade, the Bishop of Blackburn; and the Rt Rev Jonathan Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield.
Mrs Chaplin will take the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust to an employment tribunal this week after she was told last year that she must hide or remove a small cross on her necklace if she wanted to continue working on hospital wards.
While the trust refused to grant her an exemption, it makes concessions for other faiths, including allowing Muslim nurses to wear headscarves on duty.
Mrs Chaplin, 54, has spent all of her career at the Exeter hospital and had never been challenged before over the necklace, which she has worn since her confirmation 38 years ago.
The bishops criticised the way in which Mrs Chaplin had been treated and stated that she should not be prevented from expressing her faith by wearing her cross.
“This is yet another case in which the religious rights of the Christian community are being treated with disrespect,” they say.
“To be asked by an employer to remove or ‘hide’ the cross is asking the Christian to hide their faith.”
The bishops said that it was “deeply disturbing” that the NHS trust’s uniform policy permits exemptions for religious clothing, but appears to regard the cross as “just an item of jewellery”.
They also expressed surprise that the court has asked for evidence to be submitted to verify that Christians wear crosses visibly around their neck.
Mrs Chaplin is being represented by leading human right’s barrister Paul Diamond, who also advised Caroline Petrie, the nurse who was suspended for offering to pray for a patient. She was later reinstated.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, founder and director of the Christian Legal Centre, described the treatment of Mrs Chaplin as “scandalous”.
“This is yet another case of double standards for Christians,” she said.
“It would seem the Exeter Hospital would rather use its money to deny Christians their rights than using its scarce financial resources to treat patients.
“It is ridiculous that in our country with such a great Christian heritage the court requires evidence to prove that the cross is a Christian symbol whilst not applying the same standards to other faiths.”
Lynn Lane, the human resources director for the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust, said: “The trust has fully acknowledged that this has become an important issue for Mrs Chaplin which is why we offered her a number of different options in the hope that a mutually acceptable solution could be agreed.
“For the trust this has always been about compliance with our agreed uniform policy and the safety of staff and patients.”
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, the human rights group, said: “Whether personal faith motivates the wearing of a cross, turban, head scarf or Star of David, it is fundamentally illiberal to require people to check such an important part of themselves at the workplace door for no justifiable reason.”
” Freedom of thought, conscience and religion should protect people of all faiths and none.
“We look forward to the Supreme Court demonstrating this by overturning the Court of Appeal in Nadia Eweida’s case against BA.”