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Backlash: Microsoft rethinks stance on homosexual rights bill

SEATTLE (BP)–Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has said his company may reassess its position on a controversial homosexual rights bill in Washington State after accusations that a local evangelical pastor had caused the software giant to move away from supporting the bill.

The bill, which has been introduced in some form to the Washington legislature for 29 years, would prohibit discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing and insurance.

Microsoft has been at the forefront of corporate homosexual rights for years, as one of the first companies to provide domestic partner benefits and to include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination policy. In the past, they’ve supported the homosexual rights legislation when it has come before state lawmakers.

But this year, Microsoft decided to take a neutral stance on the issue, narrowing its focus on legislative priorities that directly relate to their business, such as education, transportation, computer privacy and business competitiveness, The Seattle Times reported.

When an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle, The Stranger, said April 21 that Microsoft’s shift was a direct result of meetings with Ken Hutcherson, pastor of the 3,500-member Antioch Bible Church in nearby Redmond, a firestorm of e-mails, phone calls, blogs and protests from the community and some of the company’s employees erupted. The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center even demanded Microsoft return an award it gave the company in 2001.

Hutcherson, a former NFL player, has organized several rallies opposing “same-sex marriage,” including the widely publicized Mayday for Marriage in Seattle which drew 20,000 people last spring and a similar event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which drew tens of thousands last fall. His church is located a few blocks from Microsoft’s headquarters and many of his members work for the company.

According to an e-mail sent April 22 to 35,000 of Microsoft’s employees from Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, Hutcherson met with the company’s lead attorney in February after two of Microsoft’s employees testified before a House committee in support of the bill. Hutcherson believed the men were testifying on behalf of Microsoft and asked that their employment be terminated, but the lawyer insisted the men were speaking as private citizens.

During the same meeting with the Microsoft attorney, Hutcherson asked that the company make a public statement saying the bill was not necessary and said he would organize a national boycott of Microsoft products if they did not stop supporting the homosexual rights bill, according to The Times.

“What I was upset about was when they tried to step outside their four walls and make their policy my policy,” Hutcherson said of Microsoft and their anti-discrimination policy, according to The Times. “That gave me the right to step out of my world into theirs.”

Microsoft spokespersons have contended the company had decided before the meeting with Hutcherson to shift their position on the bill from supportive to neutral, and Ballmer wrote in his e-mail that no one from outside Microsoft caused the change.

“I understand that many employees may disagree with the company’s decision to tighten the focus of our agenda for this year’s legislative session in Olympia,” he wrote. “But I want every employee to understand that the decision to take a neutral stance on this bill was taken before the Session began based on a desire to focus our legislative efforts, not in reaction to any outside pressure.”

He added that he wants to respect the opinions of every Microsoft employee, though many are pitted against each other on the controversial issue.

“I don’t want the company to be in the position of appearing to dismiss the deeply-held beliefs of any employee, by picking sides on social policy issues,” Ballmer wrote.

The bill, which has been introduced each year by Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, an open homosexual, passed the Washington House 61-37 in February but lost by one vote in the Senate April 21. Murray has promised he will propose the legislation again next year, and Gov. Christine Gregoire has said she will sign it into law if it reaches her desk.

Although the bill may be curbed for another year, Gates told The Times April 25 that the fierce feedback Microsoft has received because of its neutral position may cause the company to reconsider its decision not to support the homosexual rights legislation.

“Next time this one comes around, we’ll see,” he said. “We certainly have a lot of employees who sent us mail. Next time it comes around that’ll be a major factor for us to take into consideration.”

Gates added that both he and Ballmer personally support the bill but cannot bring Microsoft as a company into the matter.

Hutcherson has said even though the bill failed in the Senate, he plans to express his displeasure with other companies who supported the legislation. The Times noted those companies could include Boeing, Nike, Washington Mutual, Vulcan or Hewlett-Packard.

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  • Erin Curry