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The culture war that heated up over same-sex marriage and roiled the 2004 presidential campaign is now expanding on the corporate front-and general counsel are getting caught in the crossfire. In recent months, conservative Christians have waged campaigns against Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp. over their support of gay and lesbian causes. At each company, the general counsel was called on to use his political skills to negotiate a settlement with the boycott organizer. Why did these businesses send out their general counsel to play diplomat? Because boycotts are more about politics than economics, said Lawrence Glickman, a history professor at the University of South Carolina who is writing a book on consumer activism. “It’s not necessarily about harming a company, but bringing bad publicity to a company,” Glickman said. By his count, various pressure groups are currently waging around 400 boycotts over issues ranging from companies’ treatment of animals, to their links with the military government of Myanmar. The hot-button issue But the hot-button issue right now is gay rights, according to Fred Taub, the president of Boycott Watch, a Cleveland-based nonprofit monitoring group. Taub said that in the past year, conservative Christians have targeted a growing number of companies for their real or perceived support of gay and lesbian causes. (In recent months The Procter & Gamble Co. and Kraft Foods Inc. have faced boycott threats similar to those at Ford and Microsoft.) The rise in religious protests has been a reaction to developments such as the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. But these actions by conservative Christians have led to a backlash from the gay and lesbian community, and more companies are getting caught in the middle. Ford found itself in this uncomfortable situation last May. The American Family Association (AFA) announced that it would boycott the car maker because of Ford’s alleged “promotion of the homosexual lifestyle and homosexual marriage.” AFA Chairman Donald Wildmon said that his group, which claims to have 3 million supporters, was particularly concerned about contributions that Ford had made to gay rights organizations, and about ads the company had placed in gay media outlets. Shortly after announcing the boycott, Wildmon was contacted by a Ford dealer in Dallas who was worried about losing sales. After meeting with several dealers who asked for time to work with their company, Wildmon agreed to suspend the boycott for six months. Ford General Counsel David Leitch (who declined to comment for this article) played a key role in Ford’s response to the AFA. Wildmon said that he was contacted by Leitch and Ziad Ojakli, Ford’s vice president for corporate affairs, both of whom flew down last summer for a meeting at the AFA’s headquarters in Tupelo, Miss. Wildmon had two more meetings with the Ford executives, in which he said they assured him that the company would end its support of gay and lesbian organizations. Leitch and Ojakli also said that all of Ford’s units, except for its Volvo division, would stop advertising in gay media outlets in the United States. On Dec. 1, 2005, Wildmon announced that the AFA was canceling its boycott because Ford had responded “in a very positive way.” No way to win Though Ford’s move pacified one pressure group, it predictably riled another. Ford’s gay and lesbian employees were quickly up in arms, as were national gay rights organizations. In early December, Leitch and Ojakli wrote a letter to Ford’s gay employee group. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the letter said that Ford wanted to “avoid politically and socially charged debates.” The letter confirmed that only Volvo would continue to market directly to the gay and lesbian community, but added that Leitch and Ojakli had told the AFA that Ford retained the right “to advertise our brands and products wherever we think it makes business sense.” The letter did little to placate Ford’s gay and lesbian critics. On Dec. 12, a group of high-level executives-not including Leitch-met with seven gay rights groups, as well as the Ford employees organization. According to Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “We were told at the meeting that there was no agreement” with the AFA. Ford followed up by posting a letter on its Web site in which it vowed to advertise all of its brands in gay publications. Now gay groups are satisfied, but Wildmon isn’t. In January, Wildmon sent a letter to Ford protesting the company’s reversal that was signed by 42 conservative allies, including Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention. At press time, Wildmon said he was “95%” certain he would reinstate the boycott. Microsoft’s stance Microsoft’s troubles stem from its support of a bill to include sexual orientation in Washington state’s anti-discrimination law. The software giant had backed the legislation in 2004, and the Reverend Kenneth Hutcherson contacted the company early last year when it was introduced again. Hutcherson is senior pastor of the 3,500-member Antioch Bible Church, which is located near Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters. After his call was directed to GC Brad Smith (whose law department is also in charge of government and community affairs), Hutcherson made his case. He had no quarrel with Microsoft’s internal policies, he explained in an interview, “as long as they didn’t step outside their four walls.” If the company continued to support the bill, however, he would call for a boycott. Hutcherson and Smith spoke three times by phone and twice face-to-face. By the end of their discussions, Hutcherson said, they had an understanding: Microsoft would take no position on the bill, and Hutcherson would abandon his boycott threat. When the legislation reached the floor of the state Senate last April, it failed by one vote. Riled employees But word of the discussions between Smith and Hutcherson leaked out to Microsoft’s gay and lesbian employees, who demanded an explanation. They met with Smith, sent e-mails to CEO Steve Ballmer, and gathered 1,500 employee signatures on a petition demanding that Microsoft support the bill. Ballmer responded with two companywide e-mails in which he acknowledged “a lot of confusion and miscommunication,” but pledged that if the bill came up again, Microsoft would support it. In January, with the company’s backing, the bill cleared the Washington state Senate by two votes and was signed into law. Smith said Microsoft officials learned a few lessons from the experience. While in general the company should only take a stand on issues relevant to Microsoft’s business, it should also consider issues that touch on its core values. And, Smith said, Microsoft executives concluded that “diversity of the work force and in the workplace is really one of the company’s core values.” Smith now heads an internal committee that decides when Microsoft should take a position on public policy issues. The threat of a boycott, he adds, shouldn’t affect the committee’s future decisions. Still, like Ford, Microsoft may have to go another round against its conservative critics. Hutcherson said that he’s now planning a different form of protest. If his lawyers tell him it’s legal, he said he’ll ask his supporters to buy a few shares of Microsoft stock each and sell them on a prearranged date. The intent is to muster a show of force in response to Microsoft’s support of the gay anti-discrimination law. And this time, Hutcherson is coordinating his initiative with Wildmon and the AFA.

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