ERIC Pickles sparked controversy after saying Britain is a Christian country and “militant atheists” should “get over it”.

The Ongar and Brentwood MP become impaasioned while talking at the Conservative spring forum in London on Saturday.

Mr Pickles said: “I've stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish.

“Heaven forbid. We're a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don't impose your politically correct intolerance on others.”

His comments have been described as ”sad” by the chairman of Essex Humanists, a non-religious group.

Darrell Thomas said: “Since the Thirty Years War the evolution of civilisation in Europe has been characterised by growing religious tolerance. It is sad that a government minister seems unable to follow in that tradition.”

Mr Pickles also said that the government had backed British values by stopping Whitehall from "appeasing extremism", whether it came from the English Defence League, militant Islamists or "the thuggish hard left".

He said: “They’re all as bad as each other.”

But Simon Cotterill, the Bishop of Chelmsford, questioned Mr Pickle’s remarks.

He said: “Is England a Christian nation? It might be more accurate to say we are a country whose laws, customs and culture is shaped by the Christian tradition.

“While I am glad that government supports things like prayers at council meetings, I actually welcome debate on all these issues believing it is the church's job to communicate the Christian faith more effectively, not least to government itself.

“Then we will be a Christian nation.”