Pa. court says you can’t deny cosmetology license based on ‘moral character’

There’s a growing consensus in Pennsylvania that laws allowing professional license denials based on “moral character” are useless. A court has concurred.

Salon Vizions stylist Michaela Slayton colors Paulette Fultz hair with Personal Protection Equipment on and Fultz wears a mask with a disposable gown on in Johnstown, Pa, Friday, June 5, 2020. (Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat via AP)

Salon Vizions stylist Michaela Slayton colors Paulette Fultz hair with Personal Protection Equipment on and Fultz wears a mask with a disposable gown on in Johnstown, Pa, Friday, June 5, 2020. (Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat via AP)

After years of debate and a growing consensus that the law was outdated, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court has decided the state Board of Cosmetology will no longer be able to deny applicants licenses based on what it perceives to be a lack of “good moral character.”

The verdict, handed down Tuesday, came as a relief to Courtney Haveman.

Haveman, 28, lives in Yardley and works as a shampooer and assistant in a hair salon. But she wants to be an aesthetician, and about four years ago, thought that dream was within reach. She had finished aesthetician school and was offered a job — all she had to do was get her license.

The state turned her down.

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“They sent me a letter back that said I lacked good moral character,” she said.

Haveman has been convicted of several misdemeanors. Between 2011 and 2013, she spent a few days in jail for a DUI, was convicted for illegal marijuana possession, and hit a security guard while drunkenly resisting arrest in a casino. She spent two years on probation for the casino incident.

She’s open about that history. She entered recovery in 2013, and said that by the time she applied for her cosmetology license in 2016, she thought she’d done the work necessary to get her life back on track. The cosmetology board’s denial was crushing.

It felt, “demeaning,” she said, like “no matter how long I stayed sober, no matter what I did, I would always have to pay consequences for bad mistakes I made when I was a teenager.”

Haveman isn’t the only person who has run afoul of Pennsylvania’s “moral character” licensing clauses.

The Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit that took up Haveman’s case and another plaintiff’s  in 2018, argued that the provision of the cosmetology law was unconstitutional because it violated due process and equal protection clauses of the constitution.

Chiefly, it said the clauses aren’t applied consistently, even in similar jobs. Barbers, for instance, can’t be denied state licenses due to perceived moral failings.

“Nobody really seems to know why exactly this was in there. During the litigation, the board itself actually didn’t know the reason,” said Andrew Ward, the Institute for Justice’s lead counsel in the case.” My best guess is it was just sort of this de facto legal language from a long time ago.”

Though it has been amended over the years, Pennsylvania’s cosmetology licensing law dates back to 1933.

Initially, the Board of Cosmetology objected to the legal complaint, arguing that among other things, Haveman didn’t request a hearing or appeal after her initial request was denied.

That, she said, would likely have required her to travel to Pittsburgh to plead her case; at the time, she decided she didn’t want to “go and stand in front of someone and beg for something that I worked for and earned.”

By the time Haveman’s case hit Commonwealth Court, changes to state licensing requirements were already in the air.

In 2017, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration conducted a review of licensing board requirements and found that “moral character” clauses — which could be found in 23 of the state’s 29 licensing board applications — were vague and could be “applied unevenly across boards.”

The legislature took up the issue soon after, and several members began steadily pushing for change, arguing that “moral character” clauses were, more often than not, hindering former offenders trying to turn their lives around.

Just last month, they passed a law that would remove consideration of any “statutory provision … regarding the consideration of good moral character, crimes of moral turpitude or ethical or honest practice with respect to disqualification of licensure due to criminal conviction.”

In other words, Haveman’s case would have been more or less moot by the end of this year, when that new law is set to take effect.

Ward noted that the new law actually makes broader changes than the Commonwealth Court’s decision does — it gets rid of all “moral character” clauses, not just the ones in the cosmetology law.

But he added that the ruling takes effect immediately, which means previously denied cosmetologists can now reapply for licenses sooner — a significant win, as far as he’s concerned.

Plus, he said, it’s helpful to have this decision on the books.

“This is a decision that other people, potentially, in other states will be able to build off of,” Ward said. “There are a lot, a lot of laws like this, but there’s also a growing consensus that they’re really not working, and hopefully this is a springboard for people in other states.”

The state has indicated it does not intend to appeal the decision.

“The Department of State supports the court’s decision to eliminate the ‘good moral character’ clause, and has been a vocal advocate for enacting clear professional licensing standards that protect the health and safety of Pennsylvanians and not creating barriers by including unnecessary or unclear licensure requirements,” department spokeswoman Laura Weis said in a statement.

Haveman, meanwhile, is now thinking about her next steps.

She estimated she can probably make about four times as much as an aesthetician  — money she, her husband and their 3-year-old son need more than ever in the midst of a pandemic.

“It’s been such a journey,” she said. “Now that it’s finally come to a conclusion, I am so excited to start.”

She’s getting her transcripts ready so she can apply for an aesthetician job as soon as she’s able, and in the meantime she’s cracking her long-abandoned school books back open.

“It’s been a few years,” she said. “But I’m ready when they say I can. I’ll be there.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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