Seattle Post-Intelligencer
updated 4/25/2005 5:34:00 PM ET 2005-04-25T21:34:00

Faced with a decision of conscience on whether to back a state bill to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination, the software giant decided to take the "neutral" position.

That's Microsoft code for what you and I might call "chickening out."

For a company that presents itself as cutting-edge and forward-thinking, such a move seems backward. And for a company recognized as a corporate leader for its treatment of gay employees, such inaction seems hypocritical, too.

Went Soft
Given the chance to help deal a blow against ignorance and lead Washington state out of the dark ages, the visionaries in Redmond took one look at a tough issue and went soft.

Microsoft caved in to fire and brimstone from Eastside pastor Ken Hutcherson. The New York Times reported Friday that Hutcherson, of Antioch Bible Church, threatened to boycott Microsoft if the company's stand did not square with the Lord. "I told them I was going to give them something to be afraid of Christians about," Hutcherson boasted.

The African American minister sounds too comfortable using the Bible to justify discrimination. Shame, shame on this soul brother. He quickly forgets the day when racial prejudice prohibited his forebears from sitting at cafe counters -- and before that, when the Bible was used to justify slavery.

As the minister roils, Microsoft recoils, saying the whole blowup is a misunderstanding. Microsoft really loves gay folk, truly it does, but company officials say they had "other" pressing legislative issues that shoved gay rights to the back of its agenda.

Microsoft is doing macro spin.

State Rep. Ed Murray, who is gay, spoke recently with Brad Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel. Smith made it clear to Murray that Microsoft was feeling the heat.

The company, which had provided a letter of support for a pro-gay bill last year, was suddenly concerned about a religious backlash.

So the explanation about Microsoft's other legislative priorities seems to fly right out the Windows of truth.

Red Republican tide
Parishioners of Hutcherson's church could indeed apply pressure on Microsoft. But while the congregation of 3,000 is robust as far as local churches go, it isn't big enough to cripple a global giant.

What Microsoft truly fears -- and what company representatives won't say publicly -- is the red Republican tide rolling across the country.

There are a lot of computers and software customers out in those Republican-leaning states. In the inner sanctum of Bill Gates' Redmond campus, I picture number crunchers trying to figure out whether all of that money is worth losing over a gay rights bill in a state divided on the issue.

Judging by their response, they said heck no.

Theirs was a business decision. Faced with offending right-wing conservatives who could boycott en masse or gays and lesbians in Washington state who were far too meek as the bill came under fire in Olympia, Microsoft punted.

That's my take, despite what company execs are scrambling to say now.

Microsoft's pitiful stand certainly won't ruffle the FOM brigade.

Friends of Microsoft
Those are the Friends of Microsoft -- people such as Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition and an architect of the rise of religious conservatives in the GOP.

Five years ago, Reed was a senior consultant to the presidential campaign of then-Gov. George W. Bush. Reed was on the payroll of both the Bush campaign and Microsoft. His task as a hired gun was to round up Bush bigwigs who would lean on Bush to support Microsoft, which had taken a whipping in an antitrust suit triggered by the Justice Department.

Reed also helped to tar the one-time Bush rival, Sen. John McCain, by painting the Arizona lawmaker as a man too comfy with gays.

Reed-minded people -- and pastor Hutcherson falls into that rabid camp -- were the folks Microsoft had in mind when controversial House Bill 1515 came up. The fate of the bill, which died a painful death by a single vote last week in the state Senate, ultimately rested with lawmakers.

But Microsoft could have publicly asserted in Olympia the pro-gay agenda it so enthusiastically celebrates in its workplace. Doing so could have opened up public attitudes about the need for protection of gays and lesbians in our state.

If corporate America leads the way, elected officials -- especially those on the fence -- might be more inclined to follow a humane line of thinking.

Bill Gates and Microsoft deserve the kudos they get for fighting disease in the Third World and for putting computers in poor urban schools.

The company's timidity on the gay rights bill was a missed opportunity for a company that doesn't miss many.


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