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Update on Wedding Barns and Alcohol Licenses: Conflicting Interpretations from Prior Administration Lead to Lawsuit Seeking Declaratory Judgment

Whether alcohol licenses are required for wedding barns continues to remain uncertain as a lawsuit is filed against the Evers Administration over the prior administration’s conflicting interpretations of Wisconsin’s alcohol licensing laws.

As discussed in a prior post, on November 16, 2018, former Attorney General Brad Schimel issued an informal and nonbinding analysis of Wisconsin’s alcohol license laws concluding that event venues, like wedding barns, qualify as public places” under Wis. Stat. § 125.09(1), requiring an alcohol license to allow the consumption of alcohol on premises. 

On December 28, 2018, the then Department of Revenue (DOR) Secretary Richard Chandler responded to a clarification request from Representative Rob Swearingen. In his response, Secretary Chandler stated that AG Schimel’s informal analysis is different from the longstanding application of the statutes” by the DOR. According to Secretary Chandler, DOR’s position has been that if an event is private, meaning attendance is limited to invited guests, it is not a public event” and the location is not a public place” at the time of the event and does not require an alcohol license for that event. Secretary Chandler concluded “[i]n short, if a place is rented for an event that is a private event, and if there is no sale of alcohol there, a liquor license is not required.” Due to the coming changes in the executive branch of state government, then Secretary Chandler did not change DOR’s position or enforcement policy based on AG Schimel’s letter. Secretary Chandler recognized that the new administration will be able to continue or change DOR’s position in this area.”

On January 14, 2019, a group of wedding barn owners represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued Governor Tony Evers, Attorney General Josh Kaul, and Peter Barca, the secretary-designee of the DOR, over the regulation of wedding barns. In Farmview Event Barn, LLC, et al. v. Tony Evers, et al. (Dunn County Circuit Court, 19-CV9), the plaintiffs argue that wedding barns are Private Event Venues” that are exempt from regulation as public places” under Wisconsin’s alcohol beverage licensing laws. Citing AG Schimel’s and Secretary Chandler’s competing interpretations, the plaintiffs in Farmview Event Barn, LLC seek a declaratory judgment from the court to resolve the dispute. While the Tavern League of Wisconsin (TLW) has not issued a statement as of this writing, the TLW has previously supported AG Schimel’s analysis in statements made to the press.

As of this writing, the Evers Administration, AG Kaul, and Secretary-designee Barca have not stated a position on the dispute. Local municipalities remain the principal issuers of retail alcohol licenses and enforcers of Wisconsin’s retail alcohol license laws. Absent further clarification from the state, local municipalities are still left to determine whether or not to require wedding barns to obtain alcohol licenses and whether or how to enforce violations. We will update as there are future developments.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

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