Faith schools risk being closed or filled by children from affluent families because of plans to axe free transport, religious leaders have warned.
A number of local authorities in England and Wales are planning to withdraw bus passes from pupils attending state-maintained church schools, amid fears they could be discriminating against children of non-religious parents. It follows government advice that authorities should consider paying for travel to secular as well as faith schools, to avoid falling foul of the Human Rights Act. Most councils are unable to afford this.
So far, Nottinghamshire, Northumberland, Hampshire, Cheshire, North East Somerset, Dudley, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Peterborough, Barnsley and Gwent, South Wales, are planning to end free travel to church schools.
Essex, Northamptonshire and Torbay councils have already introduced charges for the service.
In a letter to Hertfordshire county council, representatives of the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Jewish communities condemned the move.
The letter, signed by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Catholic archbishop of Westminster, said schools risked closure because of falling rolls or becoming "the preserve of those parents who can afford to pay".
Almost all councils in England and Wales provide free travel to faith schools, usually if families live three miles or more from the school of their choice. A survey by the National Secular Society this year found that no authority extends the same right to families who live close to a faith school but want to send their children several miles to a non-religious school. MPs said earlier this year that current policies may breach equality legislation.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said: "Those opposing the withdrawal of their unjustified privilege are simply motivated by self-interest."