Microsoft CEO: Firm Backs Gay Rights

After being criticized for quietly dropping support for a state gay rights bill, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) chief executive Steve Ballmer (search) told employees Friday that management would publicly back such legislation in the future.

Ballmer's e-mail, posted on "Scobleizer: Microsoft Geek Blogger," came two weeks after activists accused the company of caving to pressure from an evangelical pastor who had threatened to launch a nationwide boycott of the software company.

"After looking at the question from a diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda," Ballmer wrote.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (search), the nation's largest gay rights group, applauded Ballmer's comments.

"We are proud that Microsoft did the right thing and has come down squarely on the side of fairness for all employees," Solmonese said in a statement. "It is clear from Mr. Ballmer's statement that it is a business imperative to value a diverse workforce and support public policy that reinforces that principle."

Ballmer said he would not discuss what prompted Microsoft to take a neutral stance this year on a bill it had actively supported in the past.

Microsoft had earlier claimed that its decision preceded a meeting with the Rev. Ken Hutcherson (search), pastor of a local church who has organized anti-gay-marriage rallies in Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Hutcherson could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. He has said he pressured Microsoft (search) after hearing two employees testify in favor of a bill in the Washington state legislature that would have banned discrimination against gays in housing, employment and insurance.

The bill died by a single vote in the state Senate in late April.

Bloggers called the company a corporate coward, and a prominent gay rights group asked for repossession of a civil rights award it bestowed on Microsoft four years ago.

In his e-mail Friday, Ballmer said the company would continue to focus its lobbying efforts on issues that most directly affect Microsoft, such as Internet safety, intellectual property rights, free trade and a healthy business climate.

"I'm proud of Microsoft's commitment to non-discrimination in our internal policies and benefits, but our policies can't cover the range of housing, education, financial and similar services that our people and their partners and families need.

"Therefore, it's appropriate for the company to support legislation that will promote and protect diversity in the workplace."