JACKSON, Miss. – To hear one side tell it, African hair braiding (search) is an art passed down through generations, a form of expression that shouldn't be hampered by bureaucratic licensing.
The other side argues the practice needs to be regulated so braiders will learn to prevent the spread of scalp diseases (search).
Now, state lawmakers across the country are trying to untangle the issue.
Tennessee state Sen. Steve Cohen filed a bill at the request of a constituent who braids.
"The cosmetologists want to keep the hair braiders down," Cohen charged. "It's not a health and sanitation issue. It's control. It's power."
In Mississippi, however, many cosmetologists say it's unfair to exempt a small group from licensing.
"We are not against braiders," said Charlie Hilliard, president of the Mississippi Independent Beauticians Association. "We are for training."
Arizona, California, Kansas and Maryland already exempt hair braiders from cosmetology licensing, and Michigan has a voluntary licensing system, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice (search), which has filed a federal lawsuit challenging Mississippi's braiding regulations.
The institute said Washington state recently interpreted its laws to say braiders aren't covered by cosmetology regulations.
In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford in December vetoed a bill that would have required hair braiders to have 60 hours of training; they now need 1,500 hours of cosmetology education. Sanford said either requirement is "absurd."
Back in Mississippi, the National Federation of Independent Businesses has joined braiders in asking lawmakers to lift the licensing mandate.
Margaret Burden of Tupelo, Miss., complains the state requirements are an obstacle to her desire to braid for a living.
"My goodness, they talk about wanting to take women off welfare, women needing to get jobs and pay taxes," said Burden, a plaintiff in the braiding lawsuit. "This is a way to do it."
Mississippi law says a braider must hold either a cosmetology license, requiring 1,500 hours of education, or a wig specialist license, requiring 300 hours in fitting, styling and caring for wigs.
The Mississippi House has voted to lift licensing requirements for people who braid, twist or add extensions to hair without chemicals. The Senate altered the bill this week to make braiders register with the state Department of Health and be subject to sanitation inspections. The compromise returns to the House.
Sydnia Townsend of Jackson, Miss., drives three hours north to Holly Springs, Miss., to get her hair twisted once a month. Each session takes six hours.
"It's hard to find people who work with natural hair," Townsend said.