A Muslim soldier in the U.S. Army is poised to sue the branch for allegedly forcing her to remove her authorized hijab.
Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos alleged last month that a superior at Fort Carson, Colorado, pulled her aside and forced her to remove her hijab, despite having the authorization to wear it.
She was later demoted for unclear reasons and is now prepared to bring a lawsuit, Task & Purpose reported Tuesday.
After her Military Equal Opportunity Office (MEO) claim was deemed “unsubstantiated,” Valdovinos has decided to take legal action against the Army over allegedly violating her First Amendment rights.
She also said she was demoted from sergeant to specialist, and has been harassed and threatened by the public, over her story.
— Task & Purpose (@TaskandPurpose) April 2, 2019
Valdovinos originally said that on March 6, Command Sgt. Maj. Kerstin Montoya grabbed her arm and pulled her into a room at the back of the memorial chapel at Fort Carson, where she was forced to remove her authorized hijab.
Valdovinos said that Montoya, without explanation, demanded, “You come with me,” escorted her to the back of the chapel, pointed to the hijab and said to remove “that.”
She claims she followed orders, despite the action violating her religious beliefs, in order to avoid consequences for refusing orders. The next day, she filed an equal opportunity complaint at the base, likening her experience to “religious rape.”
However, Fort Carson had contested Valdovinos’ account, insisting that the incident was spurred by her violation of Army regulations.
“According to sources who were present, Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was visibly out of regulation,” said Brandy Gill, Public Affairs Chief at Fort Carson, in a statement provided by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF).
“The senior NCO did ask the Soldier to remove her hijab in order to verify whether or not her hair was within regulation. Upon removing the hijab, the Soldier’s leadership discovered that Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was completely down, which is not allowed while in uniform,” Gill’s statement added, citing Army Directive 2017-13 and Army Regulation 670-1.
Gill noted that Valdovinos was counseled in private, in the presence of the female superiors, and was not told she would be prohibited from wearing the hijab.
Cpt. Brooke Smith, who witnessed the incident, had issued a written statement that also challenged Valdovinos’ story, and corroborated the statement from Gill. Smith said Montoya simply tapped Valdovinos on the shoulder – not grab her arm as Valdovinos claims.
“Upon removing her hijab it was evident her hair was completely down,” Smith said in a statement reported by Army Times. “CSM Montoya told her to get her hair back in regulation and not let it happen again. At no point did CSM Montoya touch the soldier or yell at her (at all or within earshot of other soldiers).”
After her story went viral, Valdovinos claims that she was approached a second time by Montoya, who asked if Valdovinos’ hair was within regulations, Task & Purpose exclusively reported.
Montoya told her, “I don’t believe you,” and ordered her into the restroom to adjust her hair.
Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the MRFF, has pledged to support Valdovinos in her case. He claimed that Montoya “must have been born on krypton” to see Valdovinos’ hair through the hijab.
“Even if this CSM did have X-Ray vision, our client’s hair was neatly tucked beneath her under-cap, completely in accord with Army appearance regulations. This under-cap is part and parcel of her prior Army-approved hijab garments,” Weinstein said in a statement.
Valdovinos also claimed that she’s been faced with verbal harassment since her brigade commander, Col. David Zinn, approved her request to wear a hijab with her uniform in June 2018.
“I got called a ‘terrorist.’ I got called ‘ISIS.’ I hear comments that I’m the reason why 9/11 happened,” Valdovinos told Yahoo. “There’s a lot of anger and animosity.”