Tony Evers seeks to dismiss lawsuit over whether wedding barns should get liquor licenses
MADISON - Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul are asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit seeking to bar the state's liquor laws from applying to owners of barns that are rented for weddings.
By seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, Evers and Kaul are for now sidestepping a question the suit seeks to answer: whether private barns rented out for weddings are considered public places and thus subject to the same liquor laws as other wedding venues.
The conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty this year sued Evers, Kaul and Department of Revenue Secretary Peter Barca on behalf of two owners who rent out barns for parties where alcohol is consumed but not for sale.
The barn owners argue the venues are private places and should not be subject to regulations applied to businesses whose model hinges on selling alcohol.
Advocates for bars and restaurants say all wedding venues should face the same requirements if alcohol is consumed on their premises.
"DOJ, @GovEvers decided to punt, leaving wedding barn owners and grooms/brides alike in a state of uncertainty," C.J. Szafir, executive vice president of WILL, tweeted in response to the lawsuit. "So the litigation must continue."
The challenge against the Evers administration and Kaul comes after former Attorney General Brad Schimel released a legal opinion arguing barns used as wedding venues are subject to the state's liquor laws.
Schimel said private places that may be rented out for a limited private event are still considered public and thus subject to state laws governing public places that serve alcohol.
The informal opinion was issued just as Schimel left office and came after years of debate between free-market conservatives and advocates for the tavern industry over whether such venues should be regulated under the state's liquor laws.
In their response to the lawsuit, Kaul said Schimel's legal opinion "speaks for itself" and denied having enough knowledge to know whether “significant confusion” existed.
But Kaul also rejected the barn owner's argument that "recent actions at the state level have thrown a cloud of confusion over years of precedent, casting Plaintiffs’ business plans into uncertainty" and that if such venues would be required to obtain liquor licenses, owners of wedding barn venues "will be at risk of criminal prosecution if they continue to operate their businesses as they have for many years."
The Tavern League, a powerful lobbying group that represents bars and restaurants in Wisconsin, supports Schimel's interpretation of the law.
Tavern League lobbyist Scott Stenger said in recent months his members comply with the state laws, "but we are not going to be the only ones that are going to be licensed — meanwhile our competition is running us out of business because of the significant advantage they have over us."
Liquor licenses in Wisconsin range from $15 for a provisional retail license to $30,000 for businesses in newly developed districts appraised at $20 million.