More than 1,000 Roman Catholic priests have signed a letter expressing fears that same-sex marriage legislation would threaten their religious freedoms.
In the letter sent to The Daily Telegraph, the priests said the proposed law would limit their ability to teach about marriage in Catholic schools and other institutions.
The Equal Marriage Bill, allowing couples of the same sex to marry, is due to be published this month.
The letter was signed by 1,054 priests and 13 bishops.
“Legislation for same-sex marriage, should it be enacted, will have many legal consequences, severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship,” it said.
“It is meaningless to argue that Catholics and others may still teach their beliefs about marriage in schools and other arenas if they are also expected to uphold the opposite view at the same time.”
The letter said the legislation could threaten freedoms in a way that was last seen during “centuries of persecution” of Catholics in England.
It even compared the Prime Minister’s proposed changes to the meaning of marriage to those of Henry VIII, who sought to divorce Catherine of Aragon and eventually established himself as the head of the Church of England breaking away from Rome.
Catholic teaching opposes divorce and same-sex marriage, maintaining families should only be based on marriage between a man and woman.
The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev Philip Egan, one of the signatories, told The Daily Telegraph he fears that when preaching or teaching in schools about marriage, “we could be arrested for being bigots or homophobes”.
A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: “We have been very clear that our plans for equal marriage will fully protect the freedom of religions bodies to preach, teach and put into practice their beliefs about marriage.”
The Government says it will not force religious bodies to carry out services and that the new law will make it illegal for the Church of England and its counterpart in Wales to offer ceremonies.
Still, the plan has proven divisive, with many Tory MPs openly opposing it.