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Friends protest church’s abrupt venue change for lesbian funeral

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LAKEWOOD, Colo. -- It was images of kissing and affection between Vanessa Collier and the wife she leaves behind, Christina Higley, that drew New Hope Ministries' objection.

The video was meant to be a celebration of the 33-year-old's life – a wife and mother of two, who died in December.

But family members say church pastor Raymond Chavez did not approve of what the church has called Collier’s "alternative lifestyle."

Collier was a lesbian and a friend to many. And many are outraged that her funeral service was abruptly relocated at 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 10 -- 15 minutes after it was scheduled to begin.

“This is about not being able to have dignity in death for one of God's children,” family friend Jose Silva said. “No matter what the circumstances – if you're black, white, brown, gay, lesbian, transgender – we all deserve that. And the church did not afford that to us."

Silva helped organize a protest outside New Hope Ministries Tuesday. He says the church committed intolerance discrimination at the most disrespectful time possible.

“Imagine this,” Silva said. “There's the casket, and the pall bearers are trying to shut everything in, close the casket and move it after being told they have to do so. That is not dignified.”

Higley, Collier’s wife, was too emotional to speak on camera, but wrote the following in an email: "Vanessa and I were together for three beautiful years. Our daughters are 12 and 7. Having to explain to them why we had to leave was completely heartbreaking."

Pastor Raymond Chavez wouldn't speak on camera, but the chaplain who performed the service says Chavez was willing to let the funeral to proceed if the video was edited, an offer insulted family members refused.

The church's website says "New Hope Ministries in Lakewood is a place where those bound by drugs, alcohol, gangs and violence can find an ounce of hope.” But church protesters say New Hope wasn't willing to show an ounce of compassion to Vanessa Collier or her loved ones.

"Vanessa added a host of value as a loving wife, daughter, mother, sister and friend,” Silva said. “That's who she was. And that's what she should be judged upon.”