Tedy Okech, Charlotte Amoussou and Sonia Ekemon have over 60 years of experience practicing African style hair braiding between the three of them. It is a safe and common practice that traces back thousands of years. But before an IJ lawsuit, each of these women had to spend thousands of dollars and at least a year of her life learning a profession that has almost nothing to do with braiding before she could legally charge money to practice that skill.

Why? Because Idaho required braiders to become licensed cosmetologists before they could braid hair for a living. That means that even though African style braiding is a method of natural hair care that does not involve cutting, perming, or dyeing hair, braiders had to spend hundreds of hours learning these irrelevant skills before they could legally practice their occupation.

To obtain a cosmetology license, braiders were required to complete 1,600 hours of training at a cosmetology school—which can cost more than $20,000—and complete both a written and a practical exam. Idaho does not require cosmetology schools to teach students African style braiding techniques and only two out of 110 questions on the written exam test students on braiding. The practical exam does not cover braiding at all.

By contrast, there is no licensure requirement for tattoo artists in the state of Idaho. So it’s perfectly legal for Tedy, Charlotte or Sonia to use a needle to etch pigment into a client’s skin without any training, but they had to spend well over a thousand hours and a small fortune before they could braid that same client’s hair.

Research shows that occupational licensing laws like Idaho’s cosmetology licensing regime make it more difficult for people—especially low-income, minority, immigrant and older workers—to start or change careers and do little more than protect industry insiders from new competition.

But requiring a braider to get a license in an unrelated profession is not just bad policy; it’s unconstitutional. The right to earn an honest living is an essential part of our nation’s promise of opportunity and the Constitution does not allow the government to impose onerous licensing requirements on something as safe and common as braiding hair. That’s why Tedy, Charlotte, and Sonia joined with IJ to stand up for their rights in court.

Two days after IJ filed suit, the Idaho House of Representatives introduced a bill—based on IJ’s model Braider Opportunity Freedom Act—to completely exempt braiders from the requirement to obtain a cosmetology license. Two weeks later, the governor signed the bill into law after it passed the legislature unanimously. The law 1 took effect immediately, so Idahoan entrepreneurs like Tedy, Charlotte, and Sonia are now free to earn an honest living using their skill in braiding.

IJ has been fighting to disentangle African style hair braiders from unnecessary and burdensome licensing requirements for three decades. When IJ established its National Braiding Initiative in 2014, only 11 states allowed braiders to work with needless licenses. With the passage of its new law, Idaho became the 32nd state to eliminate licensing requirements of any kind for braiders. No one should have to hire a lawyer or a lobbyist just to earn an honest living, and IJ will keep standing up for braiders until braiding freedom is a reality nationwide.

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The History, Art and Business of African Style Hair Braiding

The art and practice of hair braiding traces back 5,000 years in West Africa. Today, people all over the world engage in the practice of braiding, twisting, weaving and locking natural hair into intricate and artistic patterns and designs. These distinct techniques are generally grouped together under the rubric of “natural hair care” because they do not involve cutting hair, dyeing, applying heat, or using caustic chemicals.

Hair braiding is an important form of cultural, artistic, and individualized expression. Until recently, the dominant standard of beauty had been defined in Western terms and Black women (particularly professionals) have struggled to comport with this standard and have often damaged their hair by applying chemical straighteners and relaxers. The techniques used in African style hair braiding, by contrast, avoid the serious damage that can occur when hair is treated with artificial products. Traditional African hairstyles geared toward the natural beauty and texture of Black hair have recently gained popularity as a form of both natural hair care and cultural expression.

African style hair braiding is also a means for entrepreneurs to take the first steps up the economic ladder and to help others up the ladder as well. Nationwide, natural hair care has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry. In a free and open market, the natural hair care industry would have great potential for entrepreneurial and employment opportunities by providing popular services and products to millions of consumers, because it requires fairly little capital and modest training. In Black communities, many people learn to braid hair as young children and are taught by family and friends.

Instead, occupational licensing laws prevent braiders from pursuing these types of opportunities in Idaho and in the remaining holdout states. By forcing braiders into burdensome licensing schemes that have almost nothing to do with braiding, some braiders are forced into the underground economy and many would-be practitioners are discouraged altogether. As a result, natural hair care providers have been consigned to the status of outsiders, or worse, outlaws, fighting not just dominant standards of beauty, but also against prevailing cosmetology orthodoxy enforced by the state.

Idaho’s Cosmetology Licensing Regime

Before IJ sued, it was illegal to braid hair in Idaho without a cosmetology license.[1] The process to become a licensed cosmetologist is expensive, time consuming and almost completely irrelevant to African style hair braiding. Many braiders were unable to satisfy these requirements and were forced to either work underground or stop braiding for compensation altogether. In addition to hurting braiders, these requirements hurt consumers, who were left with fewer, more expensive options.

Idaho required braiders to satisfy three requirements to braid hair for a living. First, training: Braiders had to either complete 1,600 hours at a licensed cosmetology school[2]—which can cost more than $20,000—or complete 3,200 hours in an apprenticeship with a licensed cosmetologist.[3] Second, braiders needed to pass a written exam, only 2% of which (about two questions out of 110) concerns braiding. Third, braiders had to pass an hours-long practical exam, none of which tests students on braiding. In addition to spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars for almost entirely irrelevant training, the state also required braiders to graduate from high school or its equivalent[4], which places an unreasonable burden on immigrants who may not possess the same type of formal education that is provided in America.

Braiding hair without a cosmetology license could subject braiders to criminal charges and fines of up to $1,000 per violation.[5]

The entire system created a mismatch between regulatory objectives and reality. Idaho law allowed only licensed cosmetologists to practice hair braiding even though they are not taught that skill in cosmetology schools. Meanwhile, experienced braiders like Tedy, Charlotte and Sonia were banned from offering their services to the public.

 

The Plaintiffs

The plaintiffs were Tedy Okech, Adjo “Charlotte” Amoussou and Sonia Ekemon.

Tedy Okech

Tedy is a self-taught braider and she has been braiding for about 15 years. She was born in Uganda, moved to Idaho when she was about 10 years old and has lived in Boise since then. She works part time as an insurance agent and part time as a braider to support her two young children. Together with Charlotte Amoussou, she runs an African style braiding business out of Charlotte’s home in Meridian, Idaho. Because Idaho has now exempted braiders from the requirement to obtain a cosmetology license, they can open a salon together.

Charlotte Amoussou

Charlotte is Tedy’s business partner. She was born in Togo and moved to a refugee camp in Benin when she was four years old. She learned to braid in Benin and even worked at and earned a braiding diploma from a salon there when she was 16. She moved to the United States when she was 19, first to Idaho, then Oregon, then Massachusetts and then back to Idaho in 2015. She lives in Meridian, Idaho. Charlotte has been braiding for over 20 years and though she spends most of her time as a caregiver for her mother, she also braids hair part time with Tedy.

Sonia Ekemon

Sonia has over 20 years of experience as an African style braider. She also earned a braiding diploma while living in Benin before coming to the United States (and to Boise) at age 19. Sonia is a single parent of three young children and a widow. She and her children live in Meridian, Idaho. She braided part time for a while after moving to Idaho, but since 2015 braiding has been her full-time job. She braids about 3-5 times a week and most of her clients are African children adopted by Idahoan parents. With the passage of Idaho’s new law, Sonia is now free to open her own braiding salon.

Legal Claims

The plaintiffs brought their lawsuit under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, specifically under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.

The 14th Amendment prevents the government from arbitrarily interfering with people’s ability to earn a living in their chosen occupation. At a minimum, the government may only restrict braiders’ rights to run their businesses when there is some “rational basis” for that restriction. To demonstrate that rational basis, the government must show a reasonable connection between licensing requirements and public health and safety. But hair braiders do not threaten public health and safety and there is no justification for 1,600 hours of training (or 3,200 hours in an apprenticeship) and potentially over $20,000 in tuition and fees for irrelevant cosmetology classes. Nor is there any justification for requiring braiders to take a 110-question written exam with only two questions about braiding or an hours-long practical exam that does not test on braiding at all. In fact, federal courts have already struck down similar laws in cases brought by the Institute for Justice in California and Utah.

Tedy, Charlotte and Sonia asked the court to declare that Idaho’s cosmetology licensing laws, as applied to hair braiders, violated the right to earn an honest living protected by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. The Constitution protects every individual’s right to earn an honest living in their chosen occupation free from arbitrary and irrational government regulations. This constitutional right is meaningless unless courts enforce it and that’s why these women teamed up with the Institute for Justice to ask the court to do just that.

The Litigation Team

The plaintiffs were represented by Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dan Alban and Attorney Caroline Grace Brothers. They were assisted by Idaho attorney Edward Dindinger of Runft Dindinger Kohler, PLLC, who served as local counsel.

About the Institute for Justice

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. Since 1991, IJ has been protecting the right to earn an honest living by pushing back on occupational licensing. IJ’s first lawsuit was filed on behalf of braiders in Washington, D.C. Since D.C. repealed its license, IJ has won another dozen hair braiding lawsuits, either when courts struck down or lawmakers repealed the challenged licenses. Thirty years later, with the passage of its new law in response to IJ’s lawsuit, Idaho has become the 32nd state to eliminate licensing requirements of any kind for braiders. This legislative victory represents the latest in IJ’s commitment to ensure the economic liberty of all Americans.

[1] See Idaho Code § 54-5803.

[2] See Idaho Code § 54‑5810(2)(c)(i); Idaho Admin. Code r. 24.28.01.303.02.

[3] See Idaho Code § 54‑5810(2)(c)(ii), (4); Idaho Admin. Code r. 24.28.01.550.

[4] See Idaho Code § 54‑5810(1)(b).

[5] See Idaho Code § 54-5826(4), 54-5807(3).

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