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Lawsuit says Sykes fired worker for religious beliefs

The woman refused to provide tech support for violent computer games.

By LOUIS HAU
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 22, 2002


TAMPA -- Frances Wagner was devoted to her job at Sykes Enterprises Inc., answering tech support questions from computer users at a call center in Sterling, Colo.

"I just loved what I was doing," she says. "I'd stay after work and talk with other techs. I loved the idea of problem solving."

But when she was reassigned to provide technical support for ultra-violent computer games, she said her religious convictions prevented her from doing so. And when she balked, Wagner said, the Tampa company fired her after a year on the job.

Now, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed suit charging Sykes with religious discrimination in Wagner's 1997 termination.

The commission is seeking monetary damages, injunctive relief and a court order to implement policies prohibiting religious discrimination at the company.

Sykes chief executive John Sykes, a devout Baptist who has been public about his own religious beliefs, could not be reached for comment. Kristin Wiemer, the company's head of investor relations, said it was the company's policy not to comment on pending litigation.

Wagner, 51, has moved on and now works as a real estate agent in Riverside, Calif.

"This was a shattering experience for me, I can't tell you," she says. "I'm over it now, but I went through some stuff."

Wagner joined Sykes' call center in Sterling in September 1996. She worked as a technical support representative for an e-mail service and for a business software company, clients that hired Sykes to handle their technical support services.

Despite a middling wage of $7.10 an hour, Wagner says she enjoyed her job until early November 1997, when she was transferred to work on an account handling violent fantasy-game software, such as Doom, Hexen, Quake and Duke Nukem.

"We've gone from the Pac-Man stage of pixels to the point where blood and gore can be very realistic," she says. "That's what alarmed me."

According to the lawsuit, she told her supervisor that "to help children put trash in their computer was an abomination in the eyes of God."

The company temporarily reassigned her to other duties but ultimately fired her at the end of the month when she continued to refuse to work on the game-software account, according to the lawsuit.

Wagner says the violence in computer games differs from what's common these days in books and movies.

"In that capacity, you're an observer," she says. "In a computer game, you're a participant. It's one thing if you're an adult, but it's different when you're in your formative years ... Your self-esteem is reinforced by the amount of mayhem you create. That's a very sick and dangerous message that children are getting."

Wagner said one of the most galling aspects of her experience was what she described as the hypocrisy of the supervisors in her office.

"They all told me they wouldn't let their kids play those games and yet they wanted me to put them on other children's computers," she says.

Though raised Lutheran, Wagner no longer attends weekly church services, choosing instead to pray on her own and read the Bible daily, as well as watch broadcasts of TV evangelist Dr. Gene Scott.

"I'm a follower of Christ, regardless of what denomination you'd put after that," she says.

-- Louis Hau can be reached at hau@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3404.

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