Microsoft Slammed for Gay Rights Bill Reversal

While Microsoft prepares to "Start Something" next week at WinHEC 2005, the company is facing a heap of criticism that threatens to overshadow its biggest event in years. Microsoft is under fire from gay rights advocates and even its own employees for withdrawing support from a bill that outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Although Microsoft has been a major supporter of gay rights in the workplace and has backed the antidiscrimination legislation for the last two years, the company recently reversed its stance on House bill 1515 to "neutral." The bill lost by one vote on Thursday in the Washington State Senate.

The news sent shockwaves through blogs and online forums, as questions arose over Microsoft's motive behind the reversal. A weekly newspaper in Seattle, The Stranger, reported that Microsoft faced pressure and threats of a national boycott from Ken Hutcherson, pastor of the Antioch Bible Church located near Microsoft's Redmond home.

Microsoft denied that the decision not to support the bill was connected to Hutcherson's complaints, but acknowledged the company met with the minister on two occasions. Hutcherson, however, told the New York Times that, "I told them I was going to give them something to be afraid of Christians about" and Microsoft subsequently "backed off."

Microsoft explained its reasoning in a statement to the New York Times. "Our government affairs team made a decision before this legislative session that we would focus our energy on a limited number of issues that are directly related to our business," a company spokesperson said. "That decision was not influenced by external factors. It was driven by our desire to focus on a smaller number of issues in this short legislative session."

But Washington State Rep. Ed Murray characterized such claims as an "absolute lie." Murray says that Brad Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel, told him the company was under pressure from Hutcherson's church and was also concerned about the reaction from Christian employees.

Reaction to the reversal of support for the bill was widespread, as Microsoft employees and followers publicly expressed their dismay.

"How far up the ladder was this decision made? Who is to blame? Someone is. Sure, in a company with 50,000 employees, not everyone is bound to agree to the same moral code but to think that "nobody will know" in this day and era about a subject still contentious (grr) sounds to me like not only a serious misjudgment, but a total lack of understanding," one Microsoft MVP wrote in his Web log.

"I hate to rush to judgment myself, however I seriously do not like the tone with which this action was taken. It feels underhanded. I hope more information about why this was done and who put a stamp on it will come forward. I don't think that person, or persons should be working at Microsoft."

Microsoft was not available to comment by press time.

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