Gay marriage vote inches closer with religious protections

ALBANY, New York Wed Jun 22, 2011 10:50pm BST

Two grooms are placed atop a wedding cake to protest in favor of gay marriage in the annual Gay Pride Parade in New York June 28, 2009. REUTERS/Jacob Silberberg

Two grooms are placed atop a wedding cake to protest in favor of gay marriage in the annual Gay Pride Parade in New York June 28, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jacob Silberberg

ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - The New York state Senate appeared close to a vote on legalizing same-sex marriage after legislative leaders said on Wednesday they were reviewing proposals to strengthen protections for religious groups.

The measure needs only one more vote to pass the Republican-led Senate after being approved by the Democrat-dominated Assembly last week. Talks hinge on the concerns of undecided senators that religious individuals who refuse services to same-sex couples could be sued.

On Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he had seen a draft version of a bill that would broaden protections for religious objectors and called it "acceptable."

But Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who personally opposes same-sex marriage but has said he would allow it to come up for a vote, said Senate Republicans had not discussed the marriage proposal as they were focused on other issues.

Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has made the legalization of same-sex nuptials a top priority, told reporters on Tuesday night that he remained "cautiously optimistic" the bill would pass.

The status of the marriage bill is also tied up with other issues, including rent control laws and a cap on property tax increases, as lawmakers seek to bring this year's legislative session to an end. Leaders on Tuesday announced a tentative deal on the other issues, but those agreements had not been drafted into bills as of Wednesday afternoon.

Same-sex marriage is a key national social issue as the country moves into the 2012 presidential campaign.

One gay-rights advocate said Cuomo's leadership on the issue was unprecedented and could spark a nationwide dialogue.

"This is really the first time ever that we've seen a mainstream national political figure so far out in front on this issue. So when people see this, it will empower others to follow his example," said Richard Socarides, head of national group Equality Matters.

Same-sex marriage is currently legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia. If New York passes the bill, it would be the most populous state to legalize gay marriage.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)