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WORLD BUSINESS

Companies confused over gay rights

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A gay couple at this year's Gay Pride Parade in Boston. Growing numbers of U.S. companies are introducing anti-discrimination codes.

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(CNN) -- Art Weidner describes himself as an easy-going guy. An engineer based in Seattle, Art enjoys spending time outdoors. He usually avoids public confrontation.

But a recent e-mail from his boss explaining why his company was supporting gay pride month prompted Art to speak out.

"I felt that this was something beyond the realm of what a CEO should be doing," Weidner told CNN. "I felt he was pushing a political, social and personal agenda on company time."

Art sent a reply to his boss and copied it to several Christian groups whose members, he felt, would share his belief that corporate endorsement of gay pride and gay rights equaled a tacit approval of gay marriage.

Weidner is hardly a voice in the wilderness. In a recent CNN-USA Today poll 56 percent of Americans said gay marriage should not be recognized.

Many people who oppose gay marriage also oppose the idea that companies should extend benefits to gay partners. They say it is an issue of morals, not money.

Yet statistics suggest that a growing number of U.S. businesses disagree with those sentiments.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 49 out of 50 Fortune 50 companies have non-discrimination codes and more than 8,000 U.S. firms provide domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples.

But many companies have discovered that coming out in support of gay rights can cause problems of its own.

Hoping to force corporate America to steer clear of social issues, conservative religious activists have attempted to use boycotts, letter writing campaigns and other tactics to sway public opinion.

Under pressure from a local church, Microsoft backed off support for a gay rights bill in its home state of Washington. A barrage of "passionate e-mails" from employees convinced Microsoft to reverse course after just two weeks.

Unhappy about Procter & Gamble's support for a Cincinnati gay rights proposal, fundamentalist Christian groups last September called on their members to boycott Crest toothpaste and other P&G products.

And in May the American Family Association (AFA) began a letter-writing campaign against Kraft in protest at the company's planned support for the 2006 Gay Games.

The AFA also boycotted Ford after the carmaker gave money off new models to members of certain gay rights groups.

"I certainly don't want, if I am going to buy Ford products, for my money to be going to organizations promoting same-sex marriage," said the AFA's Tim Wildmon.

Ford, Procter & Gamble, Kraft and Microsoft told CNN that they all value diversity. Microsoft recently reaffirmed its support for Washington's proposed gay rights legislation, and helped sponsor last month's gay parade in Seattle.

Groups that actively oppose business taking a stand on gay rights also face powerful opponents such as New York's chief financial officer Bill Thompson.

"We just think about it as good business and good business sense," said Thompson, who has used shareholder resolutions to force companies to adopt gay-friendly policies.

"If employees feel that they're not open to being discriminated against I think it makes everyone feel a little safer and a little more wanted. And then you have better and more productive employees."

While the issue hasn't yet had a major impact on corporate finances, it is causing confusion in some executive offices as companies seek to avoid antagonizing activists on both sides of the divide.

In a staff e-mail sent out after the Washington legislation controversy, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer asked, "When should a company take a position on a broader social issue and when should it not? What message does the company taking a position send to its employees who have strongly-held beliefs on the opposite side of the issue?"

That's a question being asked by other big companies.

"This is tremendously hard and there's no easy answer," said Stephanie Valdez Streaty of Nissan USA, which recently decided to extend health benefits to gay partners.

"No matter what decision Nissan makes in any of our policies or practices, we're going to get criticism."

Nissan didn't move quickly enough for former employee Joe LaMuraglia. A gay man from Los Angeles, LaMuraglia quit Nissan so he could spend more time campaigning for gay rights in the workplace.

"I realized working for Nissan that I can affect change better outside the company then within," he told CNN. "I am doing this not for just myself. If there's a lesbian couple that wants to adopt a baby that's working for a company, I want to be able to say that I helped affect that change."

Companies talked to by CNN said they were listening to all sides and trying to come up with policies that satisfy employees, customers and shareholders.

But it's an almost impossible balancing act between irreconcilable positions -- a social divide that has left workers at odds and their bosses caught in the crossfire.

-- CNN's Maggie Lake contributed to this report.

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