A bill to prevent workplace discrimination against gays — not to legalize gay marriage —will be the top priority of South Carolina’s gay community as the Legislature begins work this year.

Ryan Wilson, director of S.C. Equality, said several companies in the state, such as Boeing and Google, already have policies banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

And state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, has introduced a bill that would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the same way it’s now illegal based on race, religion, sex, age, national origin or disability.

While its chances for passage might seem dim — more than 75 percent of state voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2006 defining marriage as between a man and a woman — Wilson said advocates have worked to drum up support since Smith first introduced the bill last May.

“Hopefully it will get a hearing and we’ll get a chance to talk about the issue in the session ahead,” Wilson said. “Folks might not be there on marriage equality, but they do not support discrimination.”

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, said he had no idea whether the Judiciary Committee will send the bill to the floor because some might argue such discrimination already is illegal. “If it would ever make the floor, I certainly would be interested in the debate,” he added.

Warren Redman-Gress of the Charleston-based Alliance for Full Acceptance said his group doesn’t do lobbying but can encourage its members to reach out to lawmakers on the issue.

But Redman-Gress said the alliance also can have more success working with local governments and employers to change their policies. He noted Congress also is considering similar legislation regarding workplace discrimination.

Wilson said S.C. Equality also will monitor anti-bullying legislation, also called Safe School legislation, this year. A related bill passed the Senate a year ago and was headed to the House when the session ended, he noted, adding that bill has not been picked up, but S.C. Equality has worked with other groups concerned about bullying.

And S.C. Equality is monitoring whether the S.C. Department of Revenue will require same sex couples in South Carolina to file separate federal tax returns —even though federal law allows them to file a joint tax return.

While states like Missouri don’t allow same sex marriage but do allow such couples to submit their joint federal tax return to the state, Redman-Gress said he doubts South Carolina will follow that lead.

But if it doesn’t, Wilson said, there could be a lawsuit.

“It certainly would open up an opportunity for individuals to explore legal action,” he said, adding that having to create two different federal tax returns would involve more expense. “You’re talking about a tangible injury.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.