Ahead of a same-sex marriage debate in parliament on Monday, a group of Christian leaders in the U.K. said that changing the definition of marriage can have a "chilling effect" on young people seeking careers as teachers and doctors.
"These young people, from teenagers to 30-year-olds, will suffer discrimination, and will face new risks to their career and future," the group writes in a letter, signed by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, the Most Rev. Peter Smith.
"If the Bill passes into law without much clearer protections for freedom of speech and freedom of belief, teachers, and public sector workers will have to choose between their conscience and their career; many will be deterred from a public service career and from charity involvement."
The Daily Telegraph reports that this informal group of Christian leaders, "ranging from the second most senior Roman Catholic cleric in England and Wales to Anglican vicars and independent evangelical pastors," claims that its combined congregations include 150,000 people, of whom a third are young people.
Gay marriage is a hotly debated issue in the U.K, with the government planning to legalize it by 2015. A number of Christian groups, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, have warned against forcing social change upon the public by redefining marriage.
The unofficial group of Christian leaders that wrote to the Telegraph said the MPs should consider protecting Christians with traditional views from being punished at the workplace because of their beliefs. Otherwise, the church leaders warned, young people may be forced to "choose between their conscience and their career."
The church leaders pointed to a number of cases in the U.K. in recent times as Christians with traditional views have been asked to opt out from activities at the workplace when they have been deemed to be breaching equality rules. One example includes Adrian Smith, a housing trust worker, who was demoted from his managerial post after writing in a Facebook discussion that churches should not be staging gay weddings.
According to the church leaders, because of such cases, young Christians may decide to choose other career paths and deprive the U.K. of a lot of talent.
"The young people I minister to share none of the homophobia that may have been present in earlier generations, but many of them have deep convictions of conscience about marriage that come from their own reading of the Bible," said the Rev Charlie Skrine of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, in London. "These young people have real reasons to worry about their future if the bill is passed without significant amendments to protect their freedom of speech and freedom of belief."
"The bill seeks to protect the consciences of vicars, but many public professions will be weakened if these young people are deterred from entering them for fear of legal action and discrimination if they express a biblical view of marriage."
In January, an unnamed senior source from the office of Michael Gove, who serves as U.K.'s current Secretary of State for Education, warned that primary school teachers face the risk of losing their job if they refuse to teach about gay marriage in the classroom.
Additionally, human rights specialist Aidan O'Neill of the Queen's Counsel argued on behalf of the Coalition for Marriage that teachers, hospital and prison chaplains would have to make some important decisions of conscience if the same-sex marriage bill passes.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education had tried to dismiss those fears, however, saying that "schools will not acquire a power to dismiss teachers who refuse to teach views about gay marriage which are against their conscience."