Two farms, with the help of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), are suing Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul to try to protect the wedding barn industry from a possible liquor license requirement that could force many of the venues out of business.

“As wedding season approaches, it is our hope that a judge will provide clarity and strike a blow for economic liberty that protects the rights of Wisconsin wedding barn owners,” said Lucas Vebber, WILL’s Deputy Legal Counsel.

Secretary Peter Barca of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue was also named in the lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of John and Julie Govin, owners of The Weddin’ Barn, and Bob and Jean Bahn, owners of the Farmview Event Barn.

“For years, farmers have rented out their wedding barns to brides and grooms so that they can celebrate their big day,” said Vebber in a statement released Tuesday. “It’s deeply disappointing that special interests are waging a campaign to put a stop to this time-honored tradition. In responding to the complaint, Governor Evers will have to decide whether he stands with Wisconsin’s wedding barns or big money special interest groups.”

In November, former Attorney General Brad Schimel issued an informal opinion that operators of Agricultural Event Venues (AEVs), commonly known as wedding barns, should have to get liquor licenses if events at their locations serve alcohol. Prior to Schimel’s non-binding opinion, AEVs were allowed to have alcohol served at events on their property as long as the wedding barn owners did not sell the alcoholic beverages to the attendees.

The informal opinion was requested by Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), the chairman of the Legislative Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement and a former president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin. The Tavern League has made a major legislative effort to clamp down on competition from the increasingly popular wedding barn industry, including pushing legislation that would have banned most tailgating at major sporting events.

Despite the non-binding nature of the informal opinion, Swearingen has requested the Wisconsin Department of Revenue (DOR) to begin enforcing the new liquor license requirement on July 1.

The WILL lawsuit seeks to prevent DOR from requiring AEVs to get often-hard-to-obtain liquor licenses and force a return to the policy before Schimel’s informal opinion.

“This legal action simply seeks to end the uncertainty around this situation,” Vebber said. “We are asking the Court to declare that the law is as everyone thought it was before the A.G. letter was issued — that individuals are free to consume alcohol with their guests at private events without the need for a license or permit.”

If AEVs are required to get liquor licenses, as Swearingen requested, some wedding barn owners will be forced to obtain reserve licenses for $10,000 while other wedding barn owners won’t be able to get a license at all because of the state’s liquor license quota system.

“If the state changes the way it interprets the liquor license law, it will put us out of business,” said John Govin. “When we went through our zoning process my town chairman said, ‘I will support your business venture, but don’t ever ask me for a liquor license because I can’t support a liquor license.’

With the liquor license also comes additional regulations and requirements, such as refrigeration and establishing relationships with wholesalers, that many AEVs had hoped to avoid since they only host a limited number of private events per year.

“I don’t want to be a tavern,” said Jean Bahn. “I’m not open for people to just drive in when they want to and go up to the bar. The business I run is very organized. I know exactly when they’re coming in. I know exactly when their wedding day is, and that’s what I like about it.”

Despite the uncertainty regarding the possible implementation of Schimel’s informal opinion, WILL Associate Counsel Anthony LoCoco sounded confident that the courts would agree with WILL’s interpretation of the law.

“We think the law is pretty clear that wedding barns don’t need liquor licenses,” said 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.”

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