Court ruling: Centerville woman has a right to braid hair without a cosmetology license

Published: Thursday, Aug. 9 2012 7:23 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Jestina Clayton plans to start braiding hair, and getting paid for it again.

The Centerville woman ran a home business braiding hair in the African style she learned growing up Sierra Leone until she discovered it was against Utah law because she didn't have a cosmetology license.

Clayton sued the state Department of Professional Licensing in April 2011, claiming the state's requirements for obtaining a license have nothing to do with her job and are an unconstitutional infringement on her right to earn a living.

 U.S. District Judge David Sam agreed this week.

"Utah’s cosmetology/barbering licensing scheme is so disconnected from the practice of African hair braiding, much less from whatever minimal threats to public health and safety are connected to braiding, that to premise Jestina’s right to earn a living by braiding hair on that scheme is wholly irrational and a violation of her constitutionally protected rights," the judge wrote.

The ruling left Clayton ecstatic:

"I was laughing hysterically for a while. It was so cool. I couldn't believe it. The system works," said Clayton, who fled civil war-torn Sierra Leone and came to the United States legally in 2000.

Clayton, 30, is anxious to start braiding hair again.

"Oh, yes," she said, adding she expects calls as the new school year approaches. "It's crunch time. A lot of adoptive moms need help with hair."

Clayton said she plans to apply for a business license next week and hopes to be working by September.

A Weber State University student in 2005, Clayton started her hair-braiding business to help her husband, who also attended college, and their two children. Many of her clients were adopted African children whose parents didn't know how to style their hair. Clayton said she earned about $4,800 in a good year.

She advertised her services online until she received an anonymous, threatening email in 2009: "It is illegal in the state of Utah to do any form of extensions without a valid cosmetology license. Please delete your ad, or you will be reported."

Clayton pleaded her case with a PowerPoint presentation to the state Barber, Cosmetology/Barber, Esthetics, Electrology and Nail Technology Licensing Board. The board, made up largely of licensed barbers and cosmetologists, shot her down.

A cosmetology license requires 2,000 hours of school and tuition that can reach $16,000.

Clayton's attorney Paul Avelar, of the Institute for Justice in Arizona, said the vast majority of those hours are "totally irrelevant to African hair braiding." He argued that the law stems from a misunderstanding of safe African hair braiding practices, which do not include the use of chemicals or heat that can damage hair or cause injury.

"I'm not using chemicals. I'm not doing cosmetology stuff," Clayton said.

Now a stay-at-home mother of three, Clayton, whose husband is in college working on a master's degree in linguistics, says braiding hair doesn't bring in a lot of money but buys groceries for her family.

Clayton, who has a degree in political science, approached state legislators about changing the law to exclude hair braiding from licensing requirements.

Former Rep. Holly Richardson, R-Pleasant Grove, introduced a bill last year saying if it's natural hair braiding without chemicals or glues, it should not need a license. She said it was important to several ethnic communities in which hair braiding is traditional.

But cosmetologists successfully lobbied against the measure, arguing that licensing is important to keeping customers safe because, they said, hair braiding can lead to permanent hair loss if it is not done correctly.

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