CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – A plan to legalize gay marriage in New Hampshire just won’t go away.

The state Senate agreed Wednesday to negotiate a compromise with the House on protections for religious institutions and their workers that Gov. John Lynch says he must have to sign a gay marriage bill.

The issue could come back before the Legislature as early as June 3.

Last week, the House rejected supporters’ first attempt to pass the protections by two votes. Opponents are lobbying Lynch to acknowledge the initial defeat and veto gay marriage.

The Democrat-controlled Legislature has already passed two bills on gay marriage. One bill legalizes the unions and a second fixes errors in the main bill. Those bills are being held by Senate President Sylvia Larsen to keep from triggering the five-day clock Lynch would have to act on them.

Lynch, a Democrat, personally opposes gay marriage but decided to view the issue “through a broader lens.”

Lynch said he would sign a gay marriage bill only if the legislation better protected churches and their employees against lawsuits if their beliefs preclude them from marrying gays. After last week’s House vote, Lynch spokesman Colin Manning said the governor will continue to talk with lawmakers, but the principles he articulated must be in the final version for him to sign it.

The Legislature had to put Lynch’s language in the third bill because the other bills no longer can be amended. Opponents hope that by killing the third bill, Lynch will be forced to veto the already passed gay marriage legislation.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats defeated Republican efforts on Wednesday to put the question to voters in a nonbinding referendum. Democrats argued New Hampshire isn’t a referendum state and pointed to court rulings rejecting past attempts to hold them. Republicans countered that the court rulings were on binding referendums.

Senate Republican Leader Peter Bragdon of Milford said gay marriage has divided the state and argued voters deserve a voice.

But Sen. Deborah Reynolds, D-Plymouth, pointed out New Hampshire citizens are well-represented by 24 senators and 400 representatives.

“We stand in the shoes of the electorate under the constitution,” she said.

Raymond Republican Jack Barnes warned that voters would have their say either way in November 2010 by voting for lawmakers who represented their point of view on the issue.

“It will be interesting to see if this is a big issue out there,” he said.

AP-ES-05-27-09 1615EDT

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