US: Microsoft Reversal on Gay Rights Bill

Publisher Name: 
New York Times


 


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.

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 on 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.

Dr. 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 anti-discrimination bill and
its meetings with Dr. 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 anti-discrimination
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.

But State Representative 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. Smith would not comment for this article.

Representative Murray said that in a recent conversation with Mr.
Smith, Mr. Smith said that the minister had demanded the company fire
Microsoft employees who testified this year on behalf of the bill, but
that Mr. Smith had refused. According to Representative Murray, Mr.
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."

Representative 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
Mr. Smith and about 30 employees, most of them gay, said that Mr. Smith
discussed his meetings with Dr. 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.

Dr. 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."

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 192 Technology & Telecommunications