By Rachel McPherson
June 15, 2018

Twenty-five year old Memphis father Elias Zarate had to drop out of high school to take care of his two younger siblings. While he’s worked several jobs, cutting hair became his passion. But during a routine inspection of the barbershop at which he worked, Elias was fined for having an improper license.

Why? He never got his high school diploma.

Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill in 2015 requiring applicants for a barber license to also provide proof of a high school diploma or GED—in addition to the 1,500 hours of training applicants must also receive from a registered barber school.

In response to the fine, the Beacon Center, a Tennessee-based government watchdog organization, has filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barbers Examiners on Elias’ behalf. As Beacon’s Director of Litigation, Braden Boucek, pointed out in a recent interview, those running for office in Tennessee don’t need to have graduated high school in order to run and serve—so “the very people who are passing the law did not have to have high school diplomas.”

A hallmark of American freedom is the right to earn a living: Pursuing a profession allows individuals to utilize their talents and skills, and become independent, productive members of society. Developed by the Goldwater Institute, Tennessee enacted a version of the Right to Earn a Living Act. The law requires all state agencies to review existing occupational regulations to determine whether they advance a health, safety, or welfare objective, and then to report those findings to the legislature. It is unclear why Tennessee lawmakers initially passed the bill requiring barbers to show proof of a high school diploma, but the Beacon Center argues that it is unconstitutional, irrational, and unfair.

Read more about the Right to Earn a Living Act and occupational licensing here.

Rachel McPherson is a Ronald Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

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