Last year, Clayton appeared before the Utah cosmetology board to argue that because her expertise involves nothing more than braiding, she should not have to get a state license.
The board ruled against her, and after she failed to find a legislator who would sponsor a bill to change Utah law, she connected with the Institute of Justice, an Arizona-based group that promotes economic freedom. The group filed the lawsuit in Salt Lake City on Clayton's behalf.
Clayton said she began braiding her mother's hair in Sierra Leone when she was 5 and intended to continue the practice here to help support her growing family.
"This is my heritage. This is what I grew up doing," she said. "It's not like I want to do anything different than what I've always done. I don't want to cut somebody's hair.
Paul Avelar, an attorney with the Institute of Justice, said the board's decision amounted to economic protectionism, with the action amounting to excluding her and others from the marketplace. A license requires about two years of study of subjects that do not involve hair braiding and would cost as much as $18,000, he said.
"Our argument to the court is that the rule is simply too irrational to survive constitutional scrutiny," he said.
Representatives of the Utah Department of Commerce, which supervises the Department of Professional Licensing, had no comment on the lawsuit.
Clayton said before she was required to have a license she had 12 to 14 clients, most of whom had been adopted from Africa or Haiti and needed help with their hair.