When John Govin and his wife, Julie, started hosting weddings at The Weddin’ Barn at their farm just east of Menomonie five years ago, they looked forward to renting the down-home, picturesque site to couples on their special day.
“Our goal is to share this facility with couples looking for this kind of a wedding site,” Govin said.
Now the weddings that happen at that site and other private venues that host marriages across Wisconsin are in danger of possibly losing that business if they are required to purchase liquor licenses for those events, Govin and others who operate those locations said.
On Tuesday Govin and Jean Bahn, the owner of Farmview Event Barn in Berlin in eastern Wisconsin, filed a lawsuit against Gov. Tony Evers’ administration to prevent such venues from needing a liquor license to operate. The lawsuit, filed in Dunn County, requests that a judge decide whether the state’s liquor laws apply to private barns rented out for parties or weddings where alcohol is consumed but is not for sale.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of former state Attorney General Brad Schimel questioning the issue in an informal legal opinion he issued on Nov. 16, 10 days after he lost re-election. In that opinion, Schimel said licenses should be required at private events hosted at public locations at which liquor is consumed.
Event barn owners and others have argued that those venues are private locations and should not be subject to regulations applied to businesses that depend on alcohol sales. But bar and restaurant owners say all sites that host weddings should face the same requirements if alcohol is consumed on that sites.
A spokeswoman for Evers’ office said the governor and Peter Barca, recently named as state Department of Revenue secretary, are beginning to study the issue.
Govin and Bahn are represented by the conservative legal firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Govin said the lack of clarity regarding the liquor license law puts the business he operates with his wife, Julie, and other similar wedding sites at a competitive disadvantage. He said he was told by the chairman of the town board where he lives that town officials would not support granting a liquor license to his business, which could put his business out of commission.
“We are looking for certainty on this issue,” Govin said when asked why he filed the lawsuit. “We need to be certain of what is going to happen so we can be confident of our business going forward. We need to know what the rules are going to be, either way this goes.”
Bahn concurred and said the farm she and her husband, Bob, own is not intended to operate as a tavern and should not be subjected to the same requirements as that type of business.
“I’m not open for people to just drive in when they want to and go up to the bar,” she said in a news release.
The Tavern League of Wisconsin, a lobbying group that represents bars and restaurants in the state, backs Schimel’s interpretation of the law. Allowing wedding barns to sell liquor without a liquor license results in lost business for taverns and other locations required to pay for such licenses, an organization spokesman said.
Liquor licenses in Wisconsin cost as little as $10 for a provisional retail license and as much as $30,000 for a business license in newly developed districts. In Eau Claire, regular liquor licenses cost $600 annually. Reserve licenses, which are purchased when regular licenses are not available, cost $11,500. Those purchasing reserve licenses pay $600 annually afterward to retain those licenses.
The state Department of Revenue has said locations like wedding barns that rent out space for private events at which alcohol is consumed are not required to obtain a liquor license. However, during the last state legislative session a bill was proposed that would have required wedding barns to pay for liquor licenses.
The Tavern League and Wisconsin wineries supported the measure, but it died in the state Senate after WILL determined the measure could also have banned tailgating at sports events.
The measure gained steam in recent weeks after state Rep. Ron Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, in November asked Schimel for his interpretation of the law and Schimel issued his opinion. Swearingen is chairman of a legislative committee studying alcohol enforcement who operates the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander and is a former Tavern League president.
Govin said he is uncertain how the matter will turn out but he remains optimistic his business and others will continue to be exempted from the liquor license requirement.
“The (state Department of Revenue) has enforced this rule for decades,” he said, “and I don’t see a good reason why that would be reversed.”