By Dan Wiessner
ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - The fate of the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state rested on Thursday with a small group of Republican senators concerned about protection for religious groups and the political fallout of voting in favor.
If approved, New York would be the sixth and by far the most populous U.S. state to legalize gay marriage and the vote would be a huge victory for the gay rights movement.
The bill is one vote away from passage in the New York state Senate, where supporters hope it will be approved before legislators leave for their summer recess. It was approved in the state Assembly by a comfortable margin.
The sticking point for some Republicans is whether exemptions should be extended only to clergy and some religious groups or, as some senators have said, to any organization or individual with a religious objection to same-sex marriage.
A trio of Republican senators met several times this week with Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has made same-sex marriage a top priority this year.
The group includes Sen. Stephen Saland, a highly respected Senate veteran from Poughkeepsie, whose vote could have a domino effect on his undecided colleagues.
Also on the fence are Andrew Lanza of Staten Island, John Flanagan of Long Island and two freshmen -- Buffalo's Mark Grisanti and Greg Ball of New York's Hudson Valley.
"There's no middle ground. If you get it wrong, you expose our religious organizations to litigation, and we shouldn't do that," Lanza told reporters this week.
Cuomo on Wednesday told reporters he remained optimistic lawmakers will come to an agreement on religious protections and pass the measure before they break for a lengthy recess. They could leave Albany as soon as Thursday night.
Compounding the issue is the state's influential Conservative Party, which often cross-endorses Republican candidates but has threatened to withhold endorsements from any lawmaker who votes in favor of the marriage bill.
While the bill technically needs just one more vote to pass the 62-member Senate, some political analysts speculate that no single senator would be willing to cast the deciding vote.
"If there is an announcement prior to the vote, it will not be just one senator. No one wants to be the 32nd vote," said Dan Weiller, a spokesman for Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's largest gay-rights group.
Sen. Jim Alesi of Rochester, the first Republican senator to express support for same-sex marriage, predicted last week that the measure would pass with 35 votes.
Bruce Berg, a professor of political science at Fordham University, said the small number of social conservatives in New York and growing public opinion in favor of gay marriage could shield the undecided senators.
"The big issues are the budget, the economy, jobs and taxes. If Republican senators can vote correctly on those issues, they may be given a pass" on same-sex marriage, Berg said.
A recent Siena poll found 58 percent of New Yorkers are in favor of same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage is a key national social issue as the country moves into the 2012 presidential campaign.
President Barack Obama is holding a political fundraiser with New York's gay community on Thursday evening. While he has never endorsed gay marriage as president, Obama has said his views on the subject are evolving.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)