The bitter debate over gay marriage has made it more pressing than ever for schools to become "safe havens" for gay pupils, the evangelical Christian founder of one of the country's largest academy chains has said.
The Reverend Steve Chalke, the influential leader of Oasis Community Learning and a Baptist minister, said that the gay marriage row could have potentially damaging effects on young people coming to terms with their sexuality. Schools could not afford to ignore homophobic bullying and needed to be "explicit" with pupils, parents and teachers that they were inclusive, he told TES.
"In an environment where so many negative things are being said about homosexuality, let's not assume that all young people can develop a sense of self-worth unaided by our support and guidance," he said. "If you say to someone, `the God of the universe disapproves of you', that's a huge burden to carry through life."
Any teachers who say that homosexual acts are wrong need to think about the "pastoral implications", he added. "I'm seeking to say something positive, not condemn the Catholics or Anglicans. Every church needs to have an open and honest debate about sexuality, but as part of that we have to think about our pastoral responsibility to young people."
The Rev Chalke's comments follow an article that he wrote for Christianity magazine, in which he expressed his support for gay marriage. He also revealed that he had recently conducted his first blessing of a civil partnership at his church in London.
Speaking to TES, he said that open discussion of homosexuality in schools was important, and that anyone who believed it could "turn people gay" did not understand human sexuality.
The government hopes to pass legislation to legalise gay marriage before the next election - a decision that has resulted in strong criticism from opponents.
Last week, more than 1,000 Catholic priests wrote a letter to The Daily Telegraph, which said that legalisation of same-sex marriage would threaten their religious freedom and would have many consequences, "severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools".
Among the most senior signatories was the Right Reverend Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham and chairman of the Catholic Education Service.
Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to fellow peers this week to say that legal advice suggested teachers could be sacked for refusing to teach about gay marriage (see below).
But the Rev Chalke said that school assemblies could be a powerful arena in which to discuss the issue of gay marriage and encouraged teachers to look at resources produced by gay-rights charity Stonewall.
Oasis Community Learning was established in 2004 as one of the first academy chains and now runs 19 schools. Although the schools have a Christian ethos, they do not admit pupils based on faith.
Luke Tryl, senior education officer at Stonewall, which has done extensive work to eradicate homophobic bullying in schools, welcomed the Rev Chalke's comments. "We think it is really important for senior figures to come forward and make these kind of statements," he said.
"We have been very worried about the tone and the language coming from the opponents of gay marriage. If you are a young person coming to terms with your sexuality, it sends out a negative message."
Stonewall's newly updated School Report research said that three out of five gay young people feel that homophobic bullying has a negative impact on their school work.
Greg Pope, deputy director of the Catholic Education Service, said: "Quite a number of faith schools have a really good track record on opposing homophobic bullying. All people in a Catholic school will be made to feel valued and included because we recognise the sacred nature of the individual."
The Reverend Steve Chalke spoke out in the same week as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, wrote to other peers to express his concern that teachers could face disciplinary hearings if they refuse to teach that same-sex marriage is equal to heterosexual marriage.
Legal advice suggested that laws to protect religious organisations under the legislation would be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, Lord Carey said.
The former archbishop's comments came as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (Spuc), a pro-life group, wrote to secondary schools across England and Wales calling for them to campaign against gay marriage.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headline: Make schools `safe havens' for gay pupils, says reverend