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Microsoft reverses position on gay rights

Following controversy, Ballmer says in e-mail that company will support state, federal antidiscrimination laws for businesses.

After weeks of controversy over the issue, Microsoft has decided to return to a position of legislative support for gay and lesbian rights, at both the state and federal level.

In a letter to employees, Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer said on Friday that the company would support antidiscrimination legislation, after backing off support for a Washington state bill on the issue last month.

"After looking at the question from all sides, I've concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda," Ballmer wrote in the e-mail. "I respect that there will be different viewpoints. But as CEO, I am doing what I believe is right for our company as a whole."

The issue exploded into public consciousness several weeks ago after Seattle newspaper The Stranger reported that Microsoft had backed off support for a state antidiscrimination bill after being contacted by a conservative local pastor, the Rev. Ken Hutcherson of the Antioch Bible Church.

Hutcherson, a leader in conservative religious organizations' opposition to gay marriage and nondiscrimination legislation, said he had threatened Microsoft with a boycott of the company's products if it supported the state bill. Microsoft executives later said their position on the bill was not related to the pastor's pressure, but connected to a broader company policy of avoiding taking divisive positions on "social issues."

The Washington bill subsequently failed by a single vote. Gay and lesbian organizations, which previously had applauded the company's internal policies of support for nondiscrimination, criticized the company widely over the situation. At least one prominent gay employee resigned this week from the company, according to The Stranger.

In his Friday e-mail, Ballmer said the company would join other companies in supporting federal legislation barring employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. If the Washington state bill comes up in next year's legislative session, the company will support that as well, he added.

Ballmer said he was not prepared to pursue similar legislative goals overseas, where other countries have "different political traditions for public advocacy by corporations." Nor would the company take a position on most other public policy issues, aside from those such as free trade, intellectual property rights and Internet safety, which directly affect the company's business.

"It all boils down to trust," Ballmer wrote, explaining his decision to change the company's direction and articulate a clear policy. "Even when people disagree with something that we do, they need to have confidence that we based our action on thoughtful principles, because that is how we run our business."

Gay and lesbian rights groups welcomed the decision.

"Microsoft is a world leader in technology, and we're pleased that the company has also chosen to be a world leader in supporting equality for (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people," said George Cheung, executive director of Equal Rights Washington. "We're also looking forward to working with Microsoft and other business leaders to pass this legislation next year, ensuring that all Washingtonians enjoy the protection that Microsoft provides for its own employees."

Hutcherson could not immediately be reached for comment.

CNET's Ina Fried and Alorie Gilbert contributed to this story.