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Friday, April 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Controversy sparked on Microsoft's stance on gay-rights bill

Seattle Times staff reporter

Even as the bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians failed by a single vote in the state Senate yesterday, a sideshow was springing up around Microsoft's withdrawal of support for the measure.

Word spread quickly around the Capitol about a story in the local alternative newsweekly The Stranger, which said the software giant was withdrawing its support for House Bill 1515 because of pressure from Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Redmond's 3,500-member Antioch Bible Church.

Microsoft spokeswoman Tami Begasse denied the report, saying "people are misunderstanding and misrepresenting the meeting with Hutcherson."

Once supported bill

Even before the Legislature convened this year, the company decided to be neutral on the bill, even though it had supported it in the past. The company made the change this year because it was narrowing its lobbying focus to issues such as education, transportation, computer privacy and business competitiveness, Begasse said.

Hutcherson, though, said yesterday he met with Microsoft officials earlier this year, telling them he would organize a national boycott of the company's products if it did not withdraw its support of the bill.

Hutcherson also said he told the company's officials that two Microsoft employees who had testified in support of the bill should be fired because they misrepresented themselves as representatives of the company. Begasse said the two employees were testifying as individuals, not company representatives.

The pastor said he didn't care what the company's policies were regarding gay employees as long as they kept it within their business. "What I was upset about was when they tried to step outside their four walls and make their policy my policy. That gave me the right to step out of my world into theirs."

Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the bill's sponsor, said a Microsoft lobbyist had told him toward the start of the legislative session that the company would support the bill this year as it had for the previous two years. Murray also said the lobbyist, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, said the company would send a letter of support.

Murray said he never received the letter, and that in the next few weeks he received phone calls from Microsoft employees, referring to pressure from Hutcherson on the company. He said Microsoft told him about a month later that it had changed its position to neutral on the bill.

Begasse, the Microsoft spokeswoman, said the company had indeed sent a letter in support of the bill last year, and that for the past decade, it has supported and continues to support Human Rights Campaign, a national lobbying group advocating for similar legislation at the national level.

She said the meeting company officials had with Hutcherson in February "was long after our decision" to narrow the company's legislative focus, and that the decision to be neutral "was not influenced by anything external." Begasse said Hutcherson wanted Microsoft to come out against the bill, but the company refused.

Regardless of when and why Microsoft shifted positions on the bill, people in the Capitol were talking about it yesterday.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, called it shocking. And while she didn't know if it affected the vote, she believed it didn't help. "It was the wrong signal at the wrong time," she said.

Sen. Luke Esser, R-Bellevue, said he was going to vote against the bill anyway, but having the largest employer in his district come out neutral on the issue "strengthened the case for the no vote I was already going to cast."

In any case, Hutcherson said it wasn't the end of his efforts. Even though the bill failed yesterday, he plans to visit two other companies that endorsed it to express his displeasure. Hutcherson would not name the businesses. Companies that endorsed the bill include Boeing, Nike, Washington Mutual, Vulcan and Hewlett-Packard.

Another mini-sideshow surrounding the bill involved rumors that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, which has opposed such bills for years, was neutral this year.

Governor's meeting

Gov. Christine Gregoire said she had met with Archbishop Alex Brunett and believed she had allayed his concerns that such legislation would open the doors to gay marriage, as he believed it had in the state Supreme Court in Massachusetts.

"They're neutral. That's what the archbishop told me," Gregoire said. "He told me if I could say to him that that Massachusetts case was not based on what he'd been told, then their position was they were neutral."

Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville, who is Catholic, said she agreed to support the bill after Gregoire informed her the local archbishop would remain neutral.

But the archbishop said yesterday, through spokesman Greg Magnoni, that he never said he was neutral and, in fact, that he opposes the bill.

All three of the state's bishops oppose the bill, said Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the state's three dioceses. They oppose discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, but fear that the bill would have created a protected class of citizens that would make it easier for the court to allow gay marriage.

She said she thinks the confusion may have arisen because the Catholic Conference was trying to see if it could get anti-discrimination measures into other pieces of legislation without creating a protected class.

Seattle Times reporters Ralph Thomas and Brier Dudley contributed to this report. Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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