by Anthony Glassman
Seattle--After a Washington GLBT equal rights bill failed by one vote on April 20, Microsoft was accused of caving in to the religious right by withdrawing its support for the measure.
The bill has been introduced by gay State Rep. Ed Murray every year for a decade, and this year had the governor�s backing. It had enjoyed Microsoft�s support in past years.
The company, headquartered in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, said it decided before the beginning of the legislative session to narrow the focus of its lobbying to issues more directly related to its business.
However, a convergence of events surrounding debate on the bill gave the appearance that Microsoft complied with demands by a local religious leader to abandon its historical support for it.
Two Microsoft staff members testified before the legislature on behalf of the measure on February 1.
Former professional football player Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church, an anti-gay Seattle megachurch that has some Microsoft employees as members, complained to the company. He demanded that the employees be fired and questioned if they presented the company�s official support for the bill.
Hutcherson also wanted Microsoft to release a statement saying that the measure, which passed the state House of Representatives by a 2-1 margin two months ago, was unnecessary.
Microsoft officials decided that there were no grounds for the employees to be fired, but clarified that the bill was not part of the company�s legislative agenda for the session.
The discussion with Hutcherson was revealed in a story by the Stranger alternative weekly the day before the bill came up for its final vote. As the bill failed, a hue and cry was raised among Microsoft employees and on the Internet. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center asked the company to return an award the center gave it in 2001.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wrote in a memo to employees: �After careful review, Brad Smith [a Microsoft spokesperson] informed Rev. Hutcherson that there was no basis for firing the two employees over the misunderstanding over their testimony, but did agree that we should clarify the ambiguity over the employee testimony.�
�Brad also made it clear that while the company was not taking a position on HB 1515, the company remains strongly committed to its internal policies supporting anti-discrimination and industry-leading benefits for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees,� Ballmer noted.
He also said that Microsoft�s first responsibility was to its shareholders, which do include people with strong religious views opposing homosexuality, but that the company would not back away from its non-discrimination and domestic partner policies.
Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates, however, later said that the amount of mail from employees during the controversy could tip the scales in favor of supporting the legislation in the next session, despite the narrower lobbying focus.
Gates, who seldom grants interviews, told the Seattle Times, �Next time this one comes around, we�ll see. 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.�
Another detail that emerged during the uproar is that Microsoft has on retainer a consulting firm headed by Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition.
Microsoft first hired Century Strategies in 2000 to lobby the Bush campaign on Microsoft�s behalf for an antitrust suit then leveled at the company. Century and Microsoft parted ways at the time because of accusations against Reed for conflict of interest, since he was also working on Bush�s campaign.
John Aravosis of AmericaBlog.com found invoices dating back to at least the beginning of last November indicating that Microsoft is again using Century, even though Reed was again part of Bush�s campaign staff in the 2004 elections.
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