Microsoft under fire for reversal on gay rights bill

Critics accused Microsoft of bowing to pressure from a prominent evangelical church located near the company's headquarters.

5 min read
SEATTLE--The Microsoft Corporation, at the forefront of corporate gay rights for decades, is coming under fire from gay rights groups, politicians and its own employees for withdrawing its support for a state bill that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Many of the critics accused the company of bowing to pressure from a prominent evangelical church in Redmond, Wash., located a few blocks from Microsoft's sprawling headquarters.

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The bill, or similar versions of it, has been introduced repeatedly over three decades; it failed by one vote Thursday in the State Senate. Gay rights advocates denounced Microsoft, which had supported the bill for the last two years, for abandoning their cause. Blogs and online chat rooms were buzzing Thursday with accusations that the company, which has offered benefits to same-sex partners for years, had given in to the Christian right.

"I think people should feel betrayed," said Tina Podlodowski, a former Microsoft senior manager and former Seattle city councilwoman who now runs an advocacy group for AIDS patients. "To me, Microsoft has been one of the big supporters of gay and lesbian civil rights issues, and they did it when it wasn't an issue of political expediency, when it was the right thing to do."

Microsoft officials denied any connection between their decision not to endorse the bill and the church's opposition, although they acknowledged meeting twice with the church minister, Ken Hutcherson.

Hutcherson, pastor of the Antioch Bible Church, who has organized several rallies opposing same-sex marriage here and in Washington, D.C., said he threatened in those meetings to organize a national boycott of Microsoft products.

After that, "they backed off," the pastor said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I told them I was going to give them something to be afraid of Christians about," he said.

Microsoft's decision not to endorse the antidiscrimination bill and its meetings with Hutcherson were first reported Thursday by The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle.

The bill, which had passed in the State House, would have extended protections against discrimination in employment, housing and other fields to gay men and lesbians. It was supported by other high-tech companies and multinational corporations including Nike, Boeing, Coors and Hewlett-Packard.

Microsoft officials said that the recent meetings with the minister did not persuade them to back away from supporting the bill, because they had already decided to take a "neutral" position on it. They said they had examined their legislative priorities and decided that because they already offer extensive benefits to gay employees and that King County, where Microsoft is based, already has an antidiscrimination law broader than what the state bill proposed, they should focus on other legislative matters.

"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," said Mark Murray, a company spokesman. "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. We obviously have not done a very good job of communicating about this issue."

"We're disappointed that people are misinterpreting those meetings," he said.

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But State Rep. Ed Murray, an openly gay Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, said that in a conversation last month with Bradford L. Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel, Smith made it clear to him that the company was under pressure from the church and the pastor and that he was also concerned about the reaction to company support of the bill among its Christian employees, the lawmaker said.

Smith would not comment for this article.

Murray said that in a recent conversation with Smith, Smith said that the minister had demanded the company fire Microsoft employees who testified this year on behalf of the bill, but that Smith had refused. According to Murray, Smith said "that while he did not do the many things that the minister had requested, including firing employees who

had testified for the bill, he believed that Microsoft could not just respond to one group of employees, when there were other groups of employees who felt much different.

"My refrain back to him was that this is a historic moment, that I only had a few weeks, and I wanted Microsoft to do the right thing," the legislator said. "Their concern, he said, was that obviously they were hearing from fairly conservative employees who were connected to this minister. They needed to sort out how they were going to deal with those problems."

Murray said the company's contention that the decision not to support the bill had nothing to do with the church was "an absolute lie."

A Microsoft employee who said he attended a meeting this month with Smith and about 30 employees, most of them gay, said that Smith discussed his meetings with Hutcherson and left the impression that the company was changing its policy on the bill as a result of those meetings.

"Brad was very clear that the decision to be neutral on the bill was made subsequent to his meeting with Ken Hutcherson," said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from the company. "My gut feeling is that the pastor and his threat of a boycott and the general sensitivity around this issue was a factor in this decision."

He added, "At the meeting, what Brad told us was that Microsoft made its decision on the bill between the first and second meetings he had with Hutcherson."

The Washington bill was one of several similar bills being debated in state legislatures across the country, which remains divided on social issues like same-sex marriage.

Hutcherson, who has become a leading national critic of same-sex marriage, said he believed he could have organized a widespread boycott of Microsoft. He said he told the Microsoft executives, "If you don't think the moral issue is not a big issue, just count the amount of votes that were cast on moral issues in the last election."

"A lot of Christians would have joined me," he said, "But it would have been a lot more people, too."

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