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Lawsuit seeks to protect Wisconsin wedding barns

By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press

MADISON (AP) — Two Wisconsin wedding barns owners planned to file a lawsuit on Tuesday against Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, seeking to ensure that private parties held at such venues don’t need to obtain liquor licenses.

The lawsuit being filed on Tuesday in Dunn County Circuit Court comes after the future of wedding barns was thrown into question by former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican.

Schimel issued an informal legal opinion in November, 10 days after he lost re-election, saying that alcohol cannot be sold at private events held in public spaces without the owner’s having a liquor licenses. State law prohibits owners of public places from allowing liquor to be sold without a license but does not define exactly what a public place is.

Attorneys for the conservative group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, also known as WILL, said on Tuesday the lawsuit they are filing seeks a ruling finding that there’s no need to have a liquor license when alcohol is sold at events held on privately owned property.

Alternatively, they are asking the court to declare the law an unconstitutional violation of due-process rights and therefore void.

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

The state Department of Revenue has for years said entities like wedding barns that rent out the space for private events have no need to obtain a liquor license.

But last session, Republicans in the state Legislature proposed a bill that would have required liquor licenses in those situations. The measure won support from the powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin and wineries but died in the Senate after WILL said it was so broad it could end tailgating before sporting events.

The Republican state Rep. Rob Swearingen asked Schimel in November for his interpretation of the law. Swearingen is the chairman of a special joint legislative committee studying alcohol enforcement and a former president of the Tavern League president and now runs the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander.

The lawsuit was filed by WILL on behalf of Farmview Event Barn in Berlin and The Weddin’ Barn in Menomonie. It argues that uncertainty over the law casts a “dark shadow” over the businesses, putting them at risk of being hit iwth criminal penalties for operating without a license.

They would also have to significantly alter their businesses if forced to buy a $10,000 liquor license and take on other related expenses, the lawsuit said. Some wedding barns would have to go out of business if they are unable to obtain the required license, WILL attorneys said.

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