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Colorado church refuses to hold funeral for lesbian woman after dispute over ‘affectionate’ photos

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 1/14/2015 Abby Phillip
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A Colorado church refused to hold a funeral service for a lesbian woman after the family declined to remove photos of her showing affection to her wife.

Vanessa Collier, 33, died in December and her funeral service was scheduled at New Hope Ministries in Lakewood, Colo., on Jan. 10. But shortly before the service was set to begin, New Hope’s Pastor Ray Chavez discovered that the family’s memorial video contained photos of Collier kissing her wife.

The church refused to hold the funeral in its building unless the photos were removed. And the family instead decided to move the service elsewhere.

“They said that they didn’t agree with her alternative lifestyle,” Dawnnetta Pierce-Fernandez, Collier’s friend of 15 years told The Washington Post. “They gave the family the option to edit the video and the family decided that they were not going to allow Vanessa’s life to be edited.”

“It’s devastating — and disgusting, honestly,” she added.

On Tuesday afternoon, friends and family of Collier protested outside the church, calling for “Dignity in Death” for Collier and other gay people.

“Pastor Ray Chavez and New Hope Ministries Cancelled the funeral of our friend 15 minutes after it was to have begin,” they said on a Facebook page announcing the protest. “Her casket was open, flowers laid out and hundreds of people sitting in the pews.”

Chaplain Gary Rolando, a friend of Collier’s father, who ultimately conducted the funeral and internment service instead, said that everyone involved worked hard to resolve the situation.

“Everybody involved — the church, the mortuary — did their best,” Rolando told The Post. “They did encounter difficulties but they did their best.”

Chavez, through his church, has declined to comment on the incident.

“The pastor of the church did not sleep well the next two nights,” Rolando said. “He’s really struggling because he really desired to minister to that family.”

Rolando said that Chavez was “sorrowful” over the situation, but doesn’t believe that speaking publicly will “help the family get past this and move on.”

According to Rolando, the dispute was over about “3 or 4″ photos, of Collier displaying affection to her wife. The church, he said, was willing to allow photos of Collier’s marriage proposal to be shown.

“They only ask that the policy be followed and that they not be overtly affectionate in the way of kissing,” Rolando said.

It was just 20 minutes before the service when the church discovered that the video included those pictures. The mortuary delivered the pictures to the church later than usual and then the church misplaced one of the discs, Rolando said. About 10 minutes before the service was scheduled to start, the family called Rolando, who works with the International Police and Fire Chaplains Association.

“The family, the funeral director, the church understood there was an impasse,” Rolando said. “The family was not willing to compromise by allowing the [audio-visual] guy to allow them to self-censor some of the photos.”

Friends who gathered in protest on Tuesday demanded an apology.

“You will not find Jesus at New Hope but you will find hypocrisy,” one sign said, according to the Denver Post.

“We want them to apologize publicly to the family and the friends,” Pierce-Fernandez said.

Collier died on Dec. 30, when her gun went off while she was cleaning it, according to 9 News. She and her wife Christina Higley have two daughters.

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