A Fort Carson, Colorado, brigade commander has found no issue with the way a command sergeant major attempted to enforce hair regulations with a Muslim soldier earlier this month, according to a Friday statement to Army Times. Now her attorney is considering filing a federal lawsuit.
Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos met with Col. David Zinn, who leads 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, to discuss her equal opportunity complaint on Thursday, her attorney told Army Times, hours after 704th Brigade Support Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Kerstin Montoya again accused Valdovinos of wearing her hair down underneath her hijab.
“A commander’s inquiry found allegations against a senior non-commissioned officer were unsubstantiated regarding discriminating against Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos," Zinn said in the statement. "The inquiry concluded that the senior noncommissioned officer acted appropriately by enforcing the proper wear of the hijab, in compliance with Army regulations.”
But she has in the past and continues to tie her hair up in a bun underneath the head covering, she said in a Thursday email, and now feels that her senior enlisted leader is targeting her.
“This is an absolutely quintessential example of some of the worst anti-Muslim bigotry, prejudice and harassment that we have seen,” Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which represents Valdovinos, told Army Times on Friday. “That’s because it’s so blatant.”
Having exhausted her administrative remedies, he added, MRFF is considering filing a federal lawsuit on her behalf, in light of the “hostile work environment” her command as created.
Valdovinos filed the complaint after a March 6 incident in which Montoya pulled her aside, ordering her to remove her hijab ― for which she has a religious accommodation waiver ― to verify her hair was in regulation. On March 21, she said, the same CSM, in the presence their paralegal, took her aside and again accused her of being out of regs.
“Well I don’t believe it is, go to the restroom and put it up over your shoulders,” Valdovinos said, paraphrasing the conversation.
She asked her first sergeant, who saw the interaction, what she should do. The paralegal told her to go to the bathroom and act like she was fixing her hair, she said.
“At this point I feel harassed by CSM Montoya, as if she’s just looking for reasons to find a way for me to get in trouble,” Valdovinos said.
Her hair was always up, she added.
“I don’t have long, thick hair,” she said. “My hair is thin and short, so because she doesn’t see a full bun sticking out of my hijab doesn’t mean I don’t have it in a bun.”
The Army authorized the hijab for wear in uniform in early 2017, in a directive that also authorized Sikh turbans and patka coverings. To wear them, soldiers must have brigade commander authorization, and their hair must be kept off of their faces and tied up according to existing regulations for long hair.
Later than afternoon, she met with Zinn to discuss the findings of his commander’s inquiry.
“Our leaders are committed to supporting Soldiers’ freedom of religious expression," Zinn said in his statement. “I have, and will continue to, take all reports of soldiers disrespecting religious beliefs, observances, or traditions very seriously.”
Valdovinos said the commander told her he would have their chaplain train the command teams on approaching religious situations. She asked for a transfer, she said, “because I feel I am being targeted. He said he would consider it."
Weinstein reached out to the deputy commanding general of 4th ID on Thursday, he said, but has not received a response.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT