Barn Weddings

An employee mops the hayloft wedding chapel at Homestead Meadows in the town of Greenville near Appleton. Owner Steve Nagy fears his business could be in jeopardy if the state requires a liquor license for his private events.

A conservative legal group is suing the state to get clarification on whether wedding barns can continue to serve alcohol without a liquor license.

The lawsuit from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty pits the conservative organization against former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, who the group argued put the wedding barn industry in limbo after he issued an informal legal opinion in November suggesting such barns are public venues and thus require liquor licenses.

Schimel’s analysis was prompted by a request from Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, who led a study committee on alcohol law enforcement.

Wedding barns — which are farm buildings converted to host weddings and other celebrations — under current law are in most cases allowed to serve alcohol without a permit, depending on county and local laws. Hosts often buy alcohol off site and serve it to invited guests.

Schimel wrote wedding barns should be required to have liquor licenses because there is essentially no difference between wedding barns and other public spaces that are subject to liquor license requirements because the barns “remain a public space open to rent.”

WILL in its filing called the former attorney general’s legal argument “illogical,” arguing that private space does not become public just because it is rented.

“If that were the case then hotel rooms, apartments and vacation cottages would be public places … and the owners and tenants/lessees of such places could consume alcohol on the premises only if they held a retail liquor license or permit,” WILL’s attorneys wrote.

Schimel’s informal opinion mirrored the stance of groups such as the Tavern League, which has criticized as unfair the DOR’s decision not to require wedding barns to obtain liquor licenses.

But other groups, such as the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, contend wedding barns already comply with existing state law and should not be subject to liquor license or permitting requirements to serve alcohol.

WILL in the lawsuit is suing Gov. Tony Evers and his administration in Dunn County court to seek clarification from a judge that wedding barn venues are, in fact, private venues that can distribute alcohol without a liquor license or permit.

The legal group is suing on behalf of two wedding barn owners it says would be at risk of closing if they can’t purchase a liquor license: The Weddin’ Barn, owned by John and Julie Govin in Menomonie, and Farmview Event Barn, owned by Bob and Jean Bahn in Berlin.

Counties are generally allowed to issue only a limited number of liquor licenses.

The state Department of Revenue under Gov. Scott Walker in November never decided whether it would enforce Schimel’s informal opinion. A DOR spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment Tuesday on its stance.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Kaul said the Department of Justice is reviewing the lawsuit, while an Evers spokeswoman said the governor and DOR Secretary Peter Barca are still exploring the issue.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association's position on wedding barn liquor licenses.

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