Wedding barns should be required to have liquor licenses if their patrons are going to consume alcohol, outgoing Attorney General Brad Schimel wrote in an opinion earlier this month.
While the opinion is nonbinding, some groups are warning it could put wedding barns and other similar venues at risk of closing if the state Department of Revenue requires them to obtain liquor or beer licenses.
Wedding barns — barns converted to host weddings and other celebrations — currently allow alcohol to be served without a permit; hosts often buy alcohol off site and serve it to invited guests.
In a statement Monday, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) said Schimel’s legal analysis of existing state law is too broad and puts wedding barns at risk of shutting down if they can’t get some of the limited number of liquor licenses municipalities are allowed to issue.
A DOR spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing Schimel’s opinion but not whether it intends to follow his guidance. A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The analysis was requested by Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, who chairs a study committee on alcohol enforcement. Schimel wrote 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.”
“A broad ‘private event’ exception cannot be supported by the text of the statute,” Schimel wrote.
Still, Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul may issue a different opinion.
“This letter is not meant in any way to bind or inhibit the role of the next attorney general, who is obviously free to disagree with my position,” Schimel wrote.
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A Kaul spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.
WILL argued Schimel’s interpretation of a “public space” would require somebody renting his or her own home to obtain a permit before consuming alcohol there.
“It’s not surprising that the Tavern League (of Wisconsin) wants to hurt, or even eliminate, their competition,” WILL president Rick Esenberg said in a statement. “But the law should not help them in their contrivance. In this case it doesn’t help them and should not be read to do so.”
Swearingen said Schimel’s interpretation of state statute “was pretty much common sense.” He criticized DOR Secretary Rick Chandler for choosing not to require wedding barns and similar venues to maintain liquor licenses.
“As a result, the barn door’s been open for the last couple of years,” Swearingen said.
The Republican added his committee will no longer pursue the wedding barn issue, saying he believed the law needs to be enforced rather than changed.
Schimel’s position mirrors that of the Tavern League, which has criticized as unfair the DOR’s decision not to require wedding barns to obtain liquor or beer licenses. The group in a memo to Swearingen’s committee had also criticized the state for allowing wedding barns other advantages over licensed establishments.
As examples, they point to wedding barns not being subject to the state smoking ban and not having to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, a group representing wedding barns, has called those allegations untrue and argued wedding barns, which are considered agricultural event venues, comply with existing liquor law.
Spokespeople for the tourism association and the Tavern League didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.