Church hustings could be regulated out of existence by the new lobbying Bill, Christian leaders have warned.
Hustings are localised meetings where voters get the opportunity to quiz candidates at election time.
Thousands of such events have been organised or resourced by local churches for previous general elections.
But the lobbying Bill puts all that at risk, according to a group of Christian leaders who have written a letter of concern to the Government.
The letter has been signed by the leaders of CARE, Christian Concern, the Evangelical Alliance and The Christian Institute.
It says church hustings will naturally focus on particular issues of concern to Christians and may exclude candidates from certain parties, like the BNP.
That could breach the Bill’s strict new rules, say the Christian leaders, placing churches under unnecessary and burdensome regulation.
But the Government minister in charge of the Bill, the Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley, claims the rules are not changing.
He has written back to the Christian leaders saying church hustings that exclude the BNP may already be in breach of electoral rules.
Colin Hart, Director of The Christian Institute, and one of the signatories to the letter, said he was “surprised” at this claim.
Mr Lansley also restated his claim that it is not the Government’s intention to restrict faith groups or charities from legitimately engaging in public policy issues.
In their letter to Mr Lansley, the Christian leaders said it may not be the Government’s intention, but the Bill may create a chilling effect.
They say the Bill would introduce onerous regulation which may frighten off churches and Christian charities.
In their letter they wrote: “The damaging effects of the Bill on Church hustings is magnified by the prospect that anyone who gets it wrong could be committing a criminal offence.
“Most voluntary groups don’t take those kinds of chances so the chilling effect could be considerable.
“Certainly a Christian-led campaign like Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade would have been severely hampered by a law like this.”
Responding for the Government, Mr Lansley said, “the Government does understand the concern which charities and faith groups have raised”.
Adding: “It is not the intention of the Government to make the normal and important work of these groups subject to regulation.”
Mr Lansley claims the lobbying Bill does not change the election rules about church hustings.
But Colin Hart of The Christian Institute said: “I’m surprised that the Government thinks that churches have to invite the BNP to their hustings.
“If that was so, you can be sure the BNP would have invoked the law in previous elections.
“The fact is that the Bill changes the landscape and brings hustings within the scope of this area of electoral law for the first time.
“It creates great uncertainty. The Government will need to make substantial changes to its Bill to avoid a clampdown on Christian civic engagement in the run-up to the next General Election.”