An evangelical church's bid to open a free school has passed the first round of the selection process, despite announcing that it planned to teach creationism in science lessons.
The Everyday Champions Church's application to run a faith-based secondary in Newark, Nottinghamshire, was accepted by the Department for Education and put through to the "interview stage". It comes after the DfE published guidance in May banning the teaching of creationism as a "valid theory".
Pastor Gareth Morgan, the church leader and the driving force behind the free-school bid, told The TES in February that creationism would be taught across the curriculum if the school was given the go-ahead.
He said: "Creationism will be taught as the belief of the leadership of the school. It will not be taught exclusively in the sciences, for example. At the same time, evolution will be taught as a theory."
Church leaders were questioned on their proposal by a panel of civil servants and educationalists during the interview stage last week. It is not known if they agreed to curb plans to teach creationist beliefs.
Like academies, free schools - introduced in one of Michael Gove's flagship policies last year - do not have to follow the national curriculum. But rules say teaching must be "broad and balanced".
Schools minister Nick Gibb told Parliament earlier this year: "We have been clear that creationism should not form part of any science curriculum or be taught as a scientific alternative to accepted scientific theories. We expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum."
And a DfE guidance note to those applying to start a free school says: "Creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas must not be taught as valid scientific theories."
The DfE said it could not discuss individual applications but that each one would be judged with "due diligence", with the beliefs and values of organisations part of the vetting process along with their capacity to run successful schools.
However, secular education campaigners said they were "astonished" the application had got beyond the first round.
Richy Thompson of the British Humanist Association said: "Everyday Champions Church have been very clear that they intend to teach creationism as valid, and sideline evolution as just 'a theory'.
"Given this, how can the Department for Education have now allowed this proposal to pass through to the interview stage? The creep of creationism into the English education system remains a serious concern, and the Department for Education have a lot more work to do if they want to stop extremist groups opening free schools."
The DfE received 227 bids to open mainstream free schools - 65 (29 per cent) of which were for faith schools - in the second wave of applications which closed in June.
They followed 323 proposals in the first wave ending in February, of which around 10 per cent were approved to the "business case and plan" stage. Thirteen have so far signed funding agreements and are expected to open in September.
If the Everyday Champions Academy gets the green light it will join a growing list of free schools with a faith-based ethos. The Tauheedul Islam Boys' High School in Blackburn and the Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School in Barnet have been approved to prepare for opening.