Gates surprised by criticism over Microsoft withdrawal on gay rights bill

Microsoft Corp. may rethink whether it will support proposed legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in Washington State, company chairman Bill Gates said. In an interview with The Seattle Times, Gates said he was surprised by the fierce criticism that followed the company's decision to take a neutral stance on a state gay rights bill it had supported in previous years. The legislation failed by one vote in the Washington state senate Thursday, spurring outrage among gay rights activists who accused Microsoft of caving to political pressure from an evangelical pastor. "Next time this one comes around, we'll see," Gates said in the story published Tuesday. "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." Microsoft, one of the first companies to offer domestic-partner benefits to gay employees, has denied that the pastor or anyone else outside the company influenced its decision. Gates said executives weren't expecting a backlash. "Well, we didn't expect that kind of visibility for it," Gates told the Times. "After all, Microsoft's position on a political bill--has that ever caused something to pass or not pass? Is it good, is it bad? I don't know." Gates echoed the statement that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made in an e-mail to employees on Friday, explaining that the company decided before the legislative session began that it should narrow its focus to a shorter list of issues directly affecting the business. Two Microsoft employees testified in support of the antidiscrimination measure. The Reverend Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond then met with Microsoft executives and threatened to organize a national boycott of Microsoft products if the company didn't back away from its past support of the bill. Gates said he and Ballmer both support the measure personally, adding, however, "We won't always pick every issue for the company to have a position on." Gay rights groups have said they feel betrayed. On Friday the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center asked Microsoft to return a civil rights award it gave the company in 2001. Liberal Web bloggers have urged their critics to organize their own Microsoft boycott. Gates said he welcomes the feedback. "It's perfectly fair for us to be scrutinized on anything," Gates said. "We didn't realize that one would get that level of scrutiny, but there's people who care a lot. They care a lot about the issue." Microsoft came under renewed criticism from gay rights groups on Tuesday after AmericaBlog, a Washington D.C.-based site that writes on politics and gay rights issues, revealed that the company is using former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed's lobbying firm, according to a report from Reed has been a longtime opponent of gay rights. The state gay rights group Equal Rights Washington called on Microsoft to sever its connection to Reed's Century Strategies firm and to hold talks with them on rights issues. "We're just dismayed that as an agent of Microsoft, [Reed] might have played a role in the defeat of equal rights for all Washingtonians," George Cheung, executive director of Equal Rights Washington, told CNET. His group has invited the company's top executives to a town hall meeting on Friday to discuss the company's future activities.

Tags: World, Ralph Reed

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