Microsoft: A cave on gay rights, or just busy?

The software giant withdraws its support from an anti-discrimination bill, but it insists that it didn't succomb to pressure from a mega-church minister.

Published April 22, 2005 12:44PM (EDT)

The Washington state senate killed a bill Thursday that would have outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. As we noted yesterday, the bill went down after Microsoft, an economic giant in the state, withdrew its support for it. The reason? According to a Seattle weekly called The Stranger, Microsoft caved to pressure from the evangelical minister of a Redmond, Wash., mega-church.

As The Stranger had it, Microsoft supported the anti-discrimination legislation for more than a year but switched its position to "neutral" after an NFL-linebacker-turned-minister named Ken Hutcherson met with company officials and told them that he'd launch a boycott of Microsoft products if the company continued to support the bill. In an interview with the New York Times, Hutcherson backed up that part of the story: He said that Microsoft "backed off" from supporting the bill after he told company officials he was "going to give them something to be afraid of Christians about." Washington Rep. Edward Murray also backed up The Stranger's version of the story, telling the Times that, when a Microsoft senior vice president told him that the company would no longer be supporting the bill, he cited pressure from Hutcherson and concerns raised by Microsoft employees who were "connected" to him.

But Microsoft tells the Times that it's all a big misunderstanding. Although the company admitted to the Times that it met twice with Hutcherson, it says its decision to withdraw its support for the bill had absolutely nothing to do with him. "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," a Microsoft spokesman told the Times. "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."

Murray, who sponsored the legislation, called Microsoft's characterization "an absolute lie." We'll ask about that when we get a chance to talk with Microsoft; We tried to contact the company early yesterday, but we didn't get a phone message back until the evening, and now the game of phone tag has begun. We'll also ask about something else: If Microsoft was so worried about "focusing its energies" on a limited number of issues this year, how is it that it found time to meet with Hutcherson twice, brief Murray and, presumably, other lawmakers about its change in position, and meet with gay and lesbian employees to fill them in on both its political switch and Hutcherson's threats? Wouldn't it have taken less time -- wouldn't it have been less of a distraction from those issues "directly related to our business" -- just to leave its previous position as it was?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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