The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal group based in Milwaukee, is suing the state over how wedding barns are regulated, arguing that the venues should not be required to hold liquor licenses.
The group this week filed a suit on behalf of two plaintiffs against Gov. Tony Evers, Attorney General Josh Kaul and Peter Barca, the secretary-designee of the Department of Revenue.
The lawsuit, filed in Dunn County Circuit Court, is the latest development in a longstanding dispute between conservative advocacy groups, Republican legislators and alcohol businesses over how the state's alcohol laws should be interpreted and applied. Most lawmakers and business owners agree that the state's alcohol laws are unclear and disjointed but disagree on what to do about it.
Lucas Vebber, an attorney for the Wisconsin Institute for Law Liberty, who is working on the lawsuit, said it was prompted by an opinion issued by former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel.
Just before leaving office after he lost his re-election bid, Schimel in December wrote in a letter to a legislator that he considers wedding barns to be public spaces under the law. That opinion does not have the force of law but could create confusion for business owners and regulators.
Schimel's interpretation was a departure from how the state has understood the law in the past and caused an uproar among conservative groups and wedding barn owners, who say that they could be forced out of business if required to get liquor licenses.
Vebber said in an interview Monday WILL is not intending to accuse the Evers administration of an analysis it did not write, and said the suit's chief aim is to clarify existing law.
"With this administration, we don’t know where they're going to go on this yet," he said.
Many wedding barns do not want to be forced to get liquor licenses because acquiring them can cost thousands of dollars, owners say. Getting a license can be difficult depending on where the barn is located. Municipalities control how many liquor licenses they issue to businesses, so while some municipalities may have many licenses available, others have just a few or none at all.
Some wedding barns have opted to get a state liquor license, but many others say they should not have to because they do not sell, manufacture or distribute liquor on their premises. They instead provide a space to private clients who legally purchase alcohol from a retailer or distributor directly and then serve it at the venue.
The plaintiffs in the suit are Farmview Event Barn, operated by Bob and Jean Bahn in Berlin and The Weddin' Barn, operated by John and Julie Govin in Menomonie.
“I don’t want to be a tavern,” said Jean Bahn in a statement. “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.”
The Tavern League of Wisconsin has advocated for licensing wedding barns in Wisconsin, arguing that because alcohol is consumed at the venues, which draw large numbers of people, it constitutes a public space and should be regulated like other public places where people consume alcohol. It, along with beer and liquor wholesale groups in the state, have maintained that clear, proactive enforcement of the state's alcohol laws is needed, arguing that the state Department of Revenue has been lax on the issue for years.
The suit alleges that both businesses will be "significantly and negatively impacted by the continued uncertainty in the law," according to the suit. It is also calling for clarity in existing laws and a commitment to how the state will interpret them to "bring an end to the back-and-forth that has cast a dark shadow over the future of the plaintiffs' business." Both venues have contracts in place for events into 2020, according to the suit.
"We want a court to come in and say, 'Hey, this is what the law means and everybody can move forward on that,'” said Vebber. "(Wedding barn owners) don’t know what to tell their clients going forward. Basically they want to make sure they can honor their contracts going forward, which would allow their clients to consume alcohol on site."
The Legislature studied how or whether to regulate wedding barns in a committee last year, but failed to come to an agreement that satisfied everyone when it adjourned. Wedding barn owners have said they will continue to fight proposals that could run them out of business.
"We’re going to be very involved in both monitoring what’s happening in the aftermath of the inability of this committee to come to a consensus on language that would solve the problem," said Stephen Nagy, the owner of Homestead Meadows, a wedding barn near Appleton, which has been operating since 1981 and has held 1,508 weddings.