NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – After the American Conservative Union (ACU) – the organization hosting the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference – denied GOProud the opportunity to be an official sponsor of CPAC and have a booth at the event, the Competitive Enterprise Institute invited the gay conservative group to participate in a panel.

The Thursday event titled “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet” featured GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, GOProud adviser Liz Mair, GOProud board member Margaret Hoover, and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin making the conservative case for same-sex marriage.

LaSalvia opened the panel by delivering an account of the GOP’s attitude toward gay rights.

“There are a few in our movement who just don’t like gay people, and in 2013 that’s just not OK in America anymore,” said LaSalvia to the approximately one hundred people who attended the panel.

“People should be allowed to settle down, be monogamous, get married and be happy,” he said in arguing gay marriage is a conservative value.

The audience – younger CPAC members including quite a few conservative gays and lesbians – welcomed the panel’s message of tolerance and LaSalvia’s vision of expanding outreach and building a winning coalition across different groups.

“What brings us together are our shared principles and values. It’s not a hundred percent agreement on every single policy position; it’s our common vision of government – a government that puts freedom first. We can disagree on some specific policies and still understand that we’re bringing the same principles and values to situations,” said LaSalvia.

Goldberg, who wrote a column lambasting the ACU for not inviting GOProud to the event, declared his support of state control over marriage policy and pointed out the difficulty of replacing those people who would leave the party if Republicans backed gay marriage.

“It’s a free society and [gays] should be able to form whatever associations that they want. That said, I’m a big believer in federalism. Federalism is the best system ever conceived for maximizing happiness because it lets people live in the way that they want,” said Goldberg. “I’m a big believer in letting people live the way they want to live, and if some places want to have gay marriage I’m fine with it, and if some places don’t want to have gay marriage I’m fine with that too.”

Many in the audience expressed their support for re-examining the conservative movement to build a coalition that respects gay rights.

“Gays are a natural constituency of fiscal conservatism because we have to be self-reliable. We work together as a community and we embody fiscal conservatism. That is why so many gays will vote for Republicans and fiscal conservatives,” blogger Cynthia Yockey told PJ Washington.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) criticized those who called him a bigot for not supporting same-sex marriage. LaSalvia, for his part, agreed with Rubio, saying, “I do not believe that because someone opposes same sex marriages that automatically makes that person a homophobe. Opposing gay marriage is not, in and of itself, bigotry.”

Nevertheless, he continued, “bigotry is a stain that stains everybody if it’s tolerated. If [conservatives] do not publicly stand up to the bigots then everyone will believe we’re just like them.”

Underscoring the contentious nature of the issue among conservatives, director of Accuracy in Media Cliff Kincaid told Focal Point’s Bryan Fischer today that many people confronted him at CPAC on Thursday for a piece he wrote a few weeks ago warning that “there is no such thing as a ‘gay conservative’ unless the term ‘conservative’ has lost all meaning.”

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