DES MOINES — Two Iowa hair braiders and the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit in Polk County District Court on Wednesday challenging the state’s requirement that hair braiders spend thousands of dollars to get a cosmetology license before they can work.
Aicheria Bell and Achan Agit said at a news conference they want to start a hair braiding businesses in Des Moines, but they would first have to obtain 2,100 hours of cosmetology training that has little or nothing to do with the African-style hair braiding they want to do for a living.
“Braiding is a skill I already have. It’s a way to keep my culture alive and it has helped me provide for my family,” said Bell, who works in a hairstyling salon but provides hair-braiding services separately through word-of-mouth connections. “I just want the right to earn a living and not feel like a criminal.”
Bell said she learned to braid hair from her mother, who also was a professional hair braider. She has received training in other states and braided hair professionally for the past 15 years in Iowa and several other states but has not completed Iowa’s licensing requirements. “I’m not trying to not pay taxes or break any laws. I just want to live the way that God gave me the right and the talent,” she said.
Agit said braiding hair “is how I survived” after leaving her native Sudan in 2001 to settle in the United States. But she said it is “too scary” to be told she could get in trouble for practicing her skill in Iowa without a license.
Meagan Forbes, a Minnesota attorney representing the two Iowa African-style hair braiders, said the lawsuit seeks to end the state’s licensing of hair braiders, which she contended are arbitrary, irrelevant and among the most onerous among the 23 states that establish such requirements. She said she believed the two Iowa women have a “strong case” that their constitutional rights of economic liberty are being violated by the state’s licensing requirements — which can cost up to $22,000 to comply with regulatory standards.
“The state can’t force braiders to take on thousands of dollars in debt to learn skills they already know,” Forbes said. “This case we hope will force the state to have to take a long, hard look at its licensing laws.”
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Paul Avelar, an Arizona attorney from the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, said his organization has won 11 similar challenges across the country to end what he called “outdated and irrational” cosmetology laws.
He said 13 states have no licensing requirements for braiding hair while another four states have minimal requirements. He also noted that cosmetology and natural hair braiding are not the same thing and should be treated differently.
Polly Carver-Kimm, communications director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, which includes the state cosmetology licensing board, said her agency cannot comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit comes after two unsuccessful attempts in the Iowa Legislature to win support for legislation that sought to ease state regulations by making hair stylists who specialize in African-style hair braiding exempt from certain training and licensure requirements.
The bill cleared a subcommittee during the 2014 legislative session, but stalled in the face of critics who contended that some level of training on sanitation occupational safety and professional registration is necessary.
According to the lawsuit, state cosmetology regulations address standards for cutting or chemically treating hair that are unrelated to the practice of African-style hair braiding.
Avelar said the change sought by the litigation would make it easier for African immigrants who specialize in intricate twists, weaves and other time-consuming hairstyling techniques to open businesses and succeed economically.
“There are just some things that are so safe and so common that the government can’t license it, they can’t stop people from doing it,” he added. “You can only license an occupation in order to protect public safety. But there’s nothing to protect the public from when it comes to braiding.”
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Avelar and Forbes said they could not estimate how many Iowans are engaged in African-style hair braiding, but Forbes speculated there probably are “definitely hundreds if not thousands.” They also were unaware if any Iowans have been subject to fines — which could total $1,000 per infraction — or other sanctions for violating Iowa’s licensing standards.
“It’s very much an underground economy,” Avelar said.
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