Memphis Barber Wins Suit, Can Return to Work 

Court ruling cuts education requirement in state law.

Elias Zarate is a good barber, by several accounts, and now he can be one.

A two-year court battle ended last week with a decision that struck down an education requirement for barbers in state law and cleared the way for Zarate to, once again, cut hair in Memphis. Zarate, represented by the Beacon Center, a free-market advocacy group, argued that barbers do not need a high school diploma to get a barber's license, especially since cosmetologists only need two years of high school.

Anne C. Martin, judge of Part II of the Chancery Court of Davidson County, concluded the academic achievement requirement is "unconstitutional, unlawful, and unenforceable." She noted that many of the arguments set forth by the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners were "not persuasive."

click to enlarge Memphian Elias Zarate can return as a barber after a two-year court battle. - BEACON CENTER OF TENNESSEE
  • Beacon Center of Tennessee
  • Memphian Elias Zarate can return as a barber after a two-year court battle.

"The board simply does not make a sufficient tie between a high school degree and barbering," Martin wrote in an order on August 8th. "Zarate, on the other hand, has provided the court with detailed information regarding the barber training program and licensure exam. The program's thorough coverage of all matters related to barbering, including sanitary requirements, chemical solutions, and the use of straight razors satisfies the court that the material makes public safety a priority."

The law requiring a high school diploma for barbers was passed in 2015, though not many took notice of it then, according to the Beacon Center. Lawmakers reviewed the law in 2018 but decided to keep it, arguing then that it encouraged Tennesseans to stay in school. Beacon argued that the law "only helps those who already are barbers by making it harder to become one."

"Barbers cut hair," reads a Beacon blog post about the case. "They do not need to understand algebra II or The Great Gatsby. Requiring barbers to graduate high school before working is irrational, and hurts people who are perfectly capable of becoming barbers but otherwise do not have a great number of career paths as stable and rewarding as barbering."

One of those people was Zarate. He attended school until the 12th grade, when his grandparents could no longer care for his two younger siblings. He dropped out to care for them, working odd jobs and honing his skills as a barber.

"I was given the chance to work at this luxury shop Downtown," Zarate said. "Things were going great. It was a dream come true. I was planning for my future. I was saving up some money for my baby."

A state inspector showed up at his shop for a surprise inspection. Zarate did not know that he was sold a fraudulent barber's license. He was fined and told he could no longer work as a barber. At a disciplinary hearing, he was told he needed a high school diploma to get back to work.

"You don't need a high school diploma to be an emergency medical first responder," said Braden Boucek, Beacon's director of litigation. "You can literally restart the heart of a pulseless, non-breathing patient and have had no high school whatsoever. But to cut hair, you need a full four years of high school education, and that makes no sense."

A statement from the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, the department targeted in the suit, said officials there are reviewing the judge's order and will follow with more information on further review.

"We remain committed to fostering fair marketplaces, public safety, and consumer education that promote the success of individuals and businesses while serving as innovative leaders," reads the statement. "We will also continue to protect Tennesseans through balanced oversight of regulated professions while enhancing consumer advocacy, education, and public safety."

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