The company will formally support efforts to pass gay rights legislation in Washington state, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer told employees today.

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Microsoft will formally support efforts to pass gay rights legislation in Washington state, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer told employees today in an e-mail addressing a flap over the company’s earlier decision to take a neutral stance on the issue in Olympia this year.

“Obviously, the Washington state legislative session has concluded for this year, but if legislation similar to HB 1515 is introduced in future sessions, we will support it,” he said.

Ballmer said the company will also continue supporting efforts to pass similar national legislation.

Supporters of the state legislation were outraged last month when it became widely known that Microsoft had switched its position from supportive to neutral.

The stance became known after the company’s chief lawyer and head of its public affairs group met with an evangelical minister, and some believed the company had responded to his concerns. But the company denied that meeting or any outsiders influenced its decision, saying it had earlier decided to focus on more business-related issues in Olympia this year.

Both Ballmer and Chairman Bill Gates said they personally supported the measure, and Gates told The Seattle Times on April 25 that Microsoft would reconsider its position in light of employee feedback.

Ballmer’s mail acknowledged that today’s decision was influenced by input from employees concerned about Microsoft’s commitment to diversity issues. He also said the company will improve the way it communicates its legislative positions in the future.

“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 said.

But Microsoft will not become an activist company, he cautioned.

“I also want to be clear about some limits to this approach. Many other countries have different political traditions for public advocacy by corporations, and I’m not prepared to involve the company in debates outside the U.S. in such circumstances,” he said. “And, based on the principles I’ve just outlined, the company should not and will not take a position on most other public policy issues, either in the U.S. or internationally.

“I respect that there will be different viewpoints,” he concluded. “But as CEO, I am doing what I believe is right for our company as a whole.”