French President François Hollande says he backs a controversial letter from the education minister to the Catholic Church that asks that same-sex marriage not be discussed in classrooms.

Speaking on French radio on Monday, Education Minister Vincent Peillon reiterated the government's stance that all schools should remain neutral on same-sex issues and respect the views of everyone.

'Every primary and secondary school should take the appropriate steps to ensure everyone has the freedom to make an informed decision.'—Eric de Labarre, secretary general of French Catholic school system

The church teaches a portion of students in France.

In early November, France's top ministers approved a bill legalizing marriage and adoption for same-sex couples, with a debate on the issue scheduled in parliament for later this month.                                                                                

Hollande said on the weekend that he supports the legislation, and backs Peillon's remarks because secularism is a republican value.

But Eric de Labarre, secretary general of the French Catholic school system, is encouraging heads of schools to allow students to discuss same-sex marriage openly in the classroom.

"Every primary and secondary school should take the appropriate steps to ensure everyone has the freedom to make an informed decision," Labarre said.

France's Catholic school system now finds itself at the centre of a contentious debate in a country that has prided itself on secular education.

If the bill on same-sex marriage passes, France would become only the 12th country to get onboard with such legislation, and the biggest so far in terms of economic and diplomatic influence.

With files from CBC News' Anna Cunningham, The Associated Press