TEACHERS claim they were threatened by a churchman in a row over whether Blackburn should get three new state faith schools.

National Union of Teachers general secretary Doug McEvoy is to write to Blackburn Diocese director of education Canon Peter Ballard seeking clarification of a memo he wrote to members.

The Blackburn with Darwen division of the NUT agreed to oppose council plans to create a state Muslim girls' high school, Muslim primary school and a new Church of England high school in the town at its annual meeting.

The move came even though Canon Ballard wrote before the meeting to union members who work at St Wilfrid's CE High School in Blackburn saying: "If the motion is passed I am sure guidance will need to be sought by all governors regarding its implication for those NUT members employed in state schools.

"All employees of church schools are required to uphold the foundation of the school."

Simon Jones, NUT divisional secretary with the Blackburn with Darwen NUT branch, said this implied a threat.

He said: "This is quite threatening and members asked me at the annual meeting to seek support from the national executive."

And he said the national executive had now praised the Blackburn branch for its stance and asked Mr McEvoy to write to Canon Ballard pointing out that no teacher should be affected if they supported union policy.

Canon Ballard is away on holiday but today a diocesan spokesman explained he was simply reminding them that in any action they took to oppose the new schools they were required to uphold the school's Christian ethos.

Lord Tony Clarke's report into last summer's Burnley riots warned against expansion of faith schools, saying it could encourage segregation.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris has said she is committed to allowing more Christian, Islamic and Jewish schools to be built if parents want them and the plans have the backing of Prime Minister Tony Blair, himself a devout Christian. Canon Ballard's memo said: "It is quite simply not true that parental choice is restricted by the existence of faith schools.

"In reality many faith schools are over-subscribed and parental demands for children to be educated in them cannot be met because there are not enough places in them.

"The council's consultation document, Faith Schools and Cultural Diversity, has at the heart of it a desire to allow parents to be free to choose the type of school that would be best suited to their child.

"The motion would make it a policy of the NUT to restrict the freedom of individual parents to choose a particular school. I cannot believe that that is in the best interests of anybody or something the NUT would wish to be associated with."

A spokesman for the Bishop of Blackburn said today: "The diocese greatly appreciates the dedication and co-operation of all its staff in church schools. In that spirit of continuing co-operation Canon Ballard was reminding NUT members that all employees are required to uphold their schools' foundation as Christian schools providing education for all." Blackburn with Darwen Council is still in talks with faith groups about creating the new schools from existing establishments. It has promised a decision next month.

But NUT members said that the large number of faith schools in the town worked against existing educational principles.

"Any proposal to expand this will increase segregation and racial tensions," they added.

Peter Morgan, Director of Education and Lifelong Learning in Blackburn with Darwen, said: "The council is consulting widely on the issue of faith schools and cultural diversity.

"This is a genuine consultation process with the widest cross-section of the community and interested groups.

"The consultation process will continue until the end of March when all the comments received will be considered and then members will decide whether to take any proposals further.

"Given the importance of this issue in shaping the nature and scope of school organisation in the borough, a decision will not be rushed and careful consideration will be given to all points of view."