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Lawsuit seeks to ensure liquor licenses aren’t required for weddings, events at barns

MADISON — Two Wisconsin wedding barns owners filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, seeking to ensure that private parties held at such venues don’t need to obtain liquor licenses.

The lawsuit filed in Dunn County Circuit Court comes after the future of wedding barns was thrown into question by former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. He issued an informal legal opinion in November, 10 days after he lost re-election, saying that private events held in public spaces require liquor licenses.

State law prohibits owners of public places allowing liquor without a license, but the law does not define what a public place is.

Attorneys for the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, said Tuesday the lawsuit they filed seeks a ruling that privately owned property holding events where alcohol is not sold do not need liquor licenses.

Alternatively, they are asking the court to declare the law an unconstitutional violation of due process rights and therefore void.

“We think the law is pretty clear that wedding barns don’t need liquor licenses,” said WILL attorney Anthony LoCoco. “A private venue on private property hosting private events is not a ‘public place’ under Wisconsin law. It is unfortunate that special interest groups have muddied the waters to such an extent that our clients have a real risk of being harmed by the confusion over state law.”

The state Department of Revenue has for years said entities like wedding barns that rent out the space for private events do not need to obtain a liquor license and did not change its enforcement policy after the Schimel opinion was released. Department spokeswoman Patty Mayers declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said incoming Revenue Secretary Peter Barca and the governor were “still learning more about this issue.” Gillian Drummond, a spokeswoman for Democratic Attorney General Brad Kaul, who defeated Schimel, said the Department of Justice was reviewing the lawsuit but declined further comment.

Last session, Republicans in the state Legislature proposed a bill that would have required liquor licenses in those situations. The measure won support from the powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin and wineries, but it died in the Senate after WILL said it was so broad it could end tailgating before sporting events.

Republican state Rep. Rob Swearingen asked Schimel in November for his interpretation of the law. Swearingen is chairman of a special joint legislative committee studying alcohol enforcement, a former Tavern League president and runs the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander.

The lawsuit was filed by WILL on behalf of Farmview Event Barn in Berlin and The Weddin’ Barn in Menomonie. It argues that uncertainty over the law casts a “dark shadow” over the businesses, putting them at risk of facing criminal penalties for operating without a license.

They would also have to significantly alter their businesses if forced to purchase a $10,000 liquor license and take on other related expenses, the lawsuit said. Some wedding barns would have to go out of business if they are unable to obtain the required license, WILL attorneys said.

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