Microsoft Gay Rights Flip-Flop

According to the New York Times, Microsoft again reversed direction on its decision to abandon support of a gay rights bill in Washington State. CEO Steve Ballmer announced to employees Friday that supporting the gay rights bill is the right thing to do.

Well, of course it is. If Jim Crow had to be reversed on a state by state or county by county basis in the old pre-civil-rights South, we would still not have full legal civil liberties for the nation’s ethnic minorities. Lacking federal protections, the Washington bill is the best that citizens in the Washington area can hope for.

The New York Times article, reprinted in the SF Chronicle, had an interesting subtext. The Microsoft decision was a disappointment to some Microsoft employees, including a contingent who belong to the Antioch Bible Church in Redmond WA.

The Rev. Ken Hutcherson complained, “I feel it’s been kind of a stressful day. I feel that it was wrong for the company to say that they will be supporting issues such as this. Businesses should not be publicly making a stance on that, regardless of their internal policies.” [emphasis mine]

Gee, this should strike a resonant chord with employees everywhere. For example, do you want your corporate management taking public positions on, say, a gaming casino in your neighborhood?

There’s an important distinction that the plaintive Rev. Hutcherson somehow managed to drop. Gaming casinos aren’t rights issues. At least, they aren’t at the top of the rights chain. If a casino initiative fails in, say, Hutcherson WA, civil liberties will not collapse nationwide like a house of cards.

The distinction dropped (and Hutcherson’s hardly alone here): civil liberties are at the top of the rights food chain. They explain, defend and protect all subordinate rights. The right to declaim at a public fountain is an extension of the right of free speech. The right to marry or join in civil union is an extension of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (not to mention, rights of equal protection). You can’t deny the one, while defending the other, without undermining the whole apparatus that shields our liberties against incursion by governments or fellow citizens.

Are you ready for answers to the big quiz? What gay rights and religious rights both have in common is that they’re both civil rights. It continues to astound me how church groups are keeping up a loud clamor that religious rights are in jeopardy, while lobbying and grassrooting vociferously for the repeal of the few splintered, unequal, scattered legal protections that gay minorities now enjoy under the law in some areas.

You’d think that religious groups would be demonstrating loudly for full civil rights for all citizens, regardless of religious or sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity or racial origin.

But wait, I can only be saying this if I think that rights are only strong and secure when everybody has them. We’re a nation of splinter rights groups. We have churches actively promoting the suppression of civil liberties, an NRA very pro on gun rights but silent on separation of church and state, and we have animal rights groups completely oblivious to the human carnage in the mideast. We have liberals who think businesspeople as a class ought to be burned at the stake. We have conservatives who think that working class folks and minorities ought to be thrown back into medieval bondage.

Silly me. I was thinking that church groups ought to be in the vanguard of civil liberties advocacy, when their track record (by and large) shows them dragged kicking and screaming into every new advance for humankind. You can put your hand down now; class is over.

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