With gay marriage in the balance, a different sort of Latino political power on display

Rhode Island's House Judiciary Committee will vote to send same-sex marriage legislation to the floor in the next couple of hours. And the full chamber is expected to approve the bill by a comfortable margin in the coming days, setting the stage for a battle royale in the state Senate.

There will be many voices vying for attention in the upper chamber: not least of them the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, a group of ministers supporting the legislation, and a still-potent Catholic Church, opposing it.

But the most intriguing religious voice in the debate may be that of a group of ministers, many of them Latino, calling itself the Faith Alliance to Preserve the Sanctity of Marriage as Established by God.

The alliance made its first big, public showing a week ago - opposing same-sex marriage legislation in a raucous rally before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the matter.

That sort of protest, alone, does not translate into influence in the State House corridors. Indeed, the group will probably be a secondary player in the debate. But its emergence is interesting because it warns against a simplistic reading of growing Latino political power in this state.

That power has been viewed as a progressive force until now - embodied, of late, by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Central Falls Mayor James Diossa.

And the growing network of evangelical Latino churches in Providence and beyond has been firmly allied with liberals on plenty of issues - from economic justice to immigration reform. Indeed, the network played a role in the broader Latino push to elect Governor Lincoln Chafee.

But this first, public flexing of power - described by one seasoned observer of Latino politics as a sort of beta test of the churches' capacity for issue advocacy - points to a deep-seated cultural conservatism in the pews.

Whether the pastors can remain united and provide any kind of coherent challege to gay rights or abortion rights - or, for that matter, any kind of coherent support for economic and social justice issues - is yet to be seen. But it's worth watching.

As one observer suggested, there is something of a vacuum in the Latino community - several of its stronger, liberal advocacy organizations having receded in recent years or shifted to a social services focus.

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