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City on lesbian and gay rights: 'We follow state's lead'

Attorney Charles Cooper argues for supporting California's Proposition 8 in the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013.

Attorney Charles Cooper argues for supporting California's Proposition 8 in the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013.

ALBANY, Ga. — As the U.S. Supreme Court begins weighing the issue of gay marriage at both the state and federal level this week, officials at in Albany say, for the meantime, that their lesbian and gay employees will have as many rights as the state gives them.

Assistant City Manager Wes Smith, who oversees the city's Human Resources and Equal Employment Opportunity Department, said that the city's current Human Resources policy references state and federal law when it comes to gay and lesbian rights.

"At this point, we adhere to the state and federal law, which basically doesn't recognize gays and lesbian employees as a protected class nor does it recognize gay marriage as legal in terms of our benefit packages," Smith said.

"We do encourage our employees, whether they are gay or straight, to report instances of sexual harassment which will be considered on a case-by-case basis because often harassment claims may turn out to be something different than just something that was done because he or she was gay. There could be claims brought for gender or race discrimination or it could rise to even a violence in the work place issue."

"Bottom line is, we encourage all of our employees to report any type of harassment because we don't want any level of harassment in the workplace," Smith said.

In Georgia, gay and lesbian couples cannot legally marry, but that hasn't stopped some cities and counties from advancing, at least to some degree, rights to them as same-sex couples.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, a group championing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered equality, three local governments in Georgia offer domestic partner registries which extend benefits such as health, dental and life insurance to employees and their partners who are in a domestic partnership.

Those governments are Fulton County, City of Atlanta and Athens-Clarke County.

A gay City of Albany employee, who did not want to give her name, said life in the workplace can be a difficult line to walk. She said gay and lesbian workers often are fearful of retaliation if they were to openly discuss their sexuality and the city's anti-gay and lesbian policies. It is not unreasonable to seek equality, she said.

"It's unsettling to know that I could be fired because of my sexual orientation...but on the flip side, Georgia is an at will state and its legal to be fired just because," she said. "I did leave a job where I was protected and if I was in a domestic partnership, my partner could get health insurance through my work. I knew what I was leaving and the protections that I had, but I knew I could keep it hidden."

Smith predicts that the court may strike down the federal legislation but leave it up to the states to determine their own laws, in which case things in Albany will likely stay the same. If both are struck down or if the court rules that state bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional, then the city will have to consult it's legal counsel as to what steps to take.

In the end, some gay rights advocates say that their right to love whomever they choose, shouldn't be an issue for governmental involvement.