Victory in Texas

April 1, 2015

Over the course of 18 years, IJ client Isis Brantley and her small hair braiding school in Dallas—the Institute of Ancestral Braiding—have been at the center of two battles for economic liberty.  

The latest ended in January when a federal district court in Texas declared it unconstitutional to force small African hair braiding schools to transform into fully equipped barber schools if they want to teach students to braid hair for a living.     

Isis Brantley’s first battle for economic liberty was in 1997, when seven police officers handcuffed and arrested her for braiding hair without the government’s permission. Braiders in Texas eventually were allowed to braid legally—without needing a 1,500-hour cosmetology license—if they completed a 35-hour state-approved braiding course. Isis led the fight to secure this legal change. Almost two decades later, Isis found herself again on the front lines for the right to earn an honest living—this time for the right to teach the next generation of African hair braiders. 

Before allowing Isis to teach, Texas wanted Isis to convert the Institute of Ancestral Braiding into a fully equipped barber school. This meant spending time and money on expensive and unnecessary equipment. Texas wanted Isis to install a minimum of 10 barber chairs, even though she only has two students at a time and does not use barber chairs; expand the school to at least 2,000 square feet, even if that extra space were to remain completely empty; and mount a minimum of five sinks, even though it is illegal in Texas for braiders to provide services using a sink. Braiders aren’t barbers, but Texas was treating them the same.

These requirements were crippling. In fact, the state’s requirements were so onerous and so disconnected from the realities of hair braiding that literally no one had successfully opened a hair braiding school in Texas. To eliminate these impossible burdens and vindicate Isis’s right to economic liberty, IJ went to federal court to advance a straightforward argument: It is unconstitutional to force people to do useless things.

And we won. In an opinion that is a model of judicial engagement, a federal court found that there was no rational basis for applying any of these burdens to Isis. 

Relying on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in another IJ case, our victory on behalf of the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey, the court rejected the state’s invitation to rubber-stamp the state’s regulations. Instead, the court engaged in a genuine search for the truth concerning the constitutionality of the government’s ends and means on the basis of real evidence. The result is a victory for economic liberty.

IJ’s latest win in federal court will help end Isis Brantley’s decades-long battle for braiding freedom. But IJ, as it has for the past 24 years, will continue to fight for the right of hair braiders everywhere to earn an honest living.

Arif Panju is an IJ attorney. 

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