It might be a tradition that every year that GOProud is excluded as a CPAC sponsor, there will be a stealth panel on gay marriage.

In 2013, that slot was filled by the “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet” panel, which was the standing-room only panel thrown unofficially by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This year, the gay rights debate happened on the mainstage at during “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?”

The social conservatives tried to pitch their issues within a libertarian framework. Dr. Matt Spalding of the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center at Hillsdale College acknowledged he differed with some of his fellow panelists on gay marriage, but said, referencing the conscience exemption carveouts, “We must have an agreement on religious liberty.”

Alexander McCobin of Students for Liberty fired back that libertarians were a little more worried about the religious liberty of couples and pastors in churches that conduct gay weddings, which are not acknowledged by their governments.

Spalding tried speaking in libertarian terms again, saying that, by default, conservatives should view any government institution with suspicion and that activists must address “whether the State has an obligation to recognize marriage at all.” In his view, traditional, one-man-one-woman marriage is “like gravity” a law external to the government, not written by it. Private contracts were a different matter, he said, but, for the public institution of marriage, the old tradition is “the only definition that makes sense.”

Throughout the panel, the social conservatives seemed to be soliciting the help of the libertarians, trying to speak their language, while the libertarians seemed indifferent to the idea of converting social conservatives. The libertarians answered the questions that were posed to them but made no parallel attempts to appeal to socially conservative tenets in order to attract their fellow panelists to libertarian positions.

The closest the libertarians came to trying to attract social conservatives, rather than just rebut them, was when Matt Welch of Reason argued that religion benefits from a free market in churches and contrasted the vibrancy of American churches with the weakening ones in France. However, the diversity of American sects is not necessarily attractive to social conservatives, any more than a strong environmentalist is pleased by a completely free market in cars, where some meet gas efficiency standards and some do not.

By the conclusion of the panel, the speakers agreed that social conservatives and libertarians could remain bedfellows, albeit strange ones. However, the tone and tactics on display reinforced Ross Douthat’s assertion that social conservatives are no longer negotiating as equals, but are working out the terms of a conditional surrender.