updated 5/6/2005 2:58:47 PM ET 2005-05-06T18:58:47

In a turnaround Friday, Microsoft Corp. chief executive Steve Ballmer said the company will support gay rights legislation.

Ballmer made the announcement in an e-mail to employees two weeks after gay rights activists accused the company of withdrawing its support for an anti-discrimination bill in its home state after an evangelical pastor threatened to launch a national boycott. The bill died by a single vote in the state Senate in late April. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

“After looking at the question from all sides, I’ve concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda,” Ballmer wrote.

The bill that failed in the state Legislature would have banned discrimination against gays in housing, employment and insurance. Microsoft had supported the measure in the past, but more recently took a neutral stance on the bill.

Critics of Microsoft called it a corporate coward, and a prominent gay rights group asked the company to return a civil rights award it had bestowed on Microsoft four years ago.

Late last month, Ballmer said the company had decided to take a neutral stance on the bill and focus instead on a shorter list of legislative priorities that had a more direct impact on the company’s software business.

He said that decision was made well before executives met with the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, pastor of a Redmond church who has organized anti-gay-marriage rallies.

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