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A delegate celebrates are delegates vote in favour of changing the wording of the party's same-sex marriage policy. The motion still has to be voted on in full session on Saturday.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The room was packed, with delegates lining the walls, crowding the back, even reaching their arms through the doors from the outside, waving their voting cards, as the Conservative Party took a big step toward dropping its opposition to same-sex marriage.

Afterward, when the motion to strike "we support legislation defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman" from the party's policy platform passed nearly two to one (279 for; 143 against), Marjory LeBreton's grin stretched from ear to ear.

"I'm just thrilled," the retired Conservative senator exclaimed. "I've always respected the right of people to be who they are. I think our party has moved, finally, into the 21st century."

Ending opposition to same-sex marriage demonstrates that the Conservative movement is evolving beyond its Reform-versus-Red Tory schism toward a unified approach that stresses small government and personal freedom, but not social conservatism.

Victory for the forces of toleration is not yet assured. There were angry voices of protest at the policy workshop where the motion was debated. Newfoundland delegate Patrick Hanlon warned that the party risked alienating social conservatives: "If we walk away from them, they will walk away from us."

The motion still has to be voted on in full session on Saturday, assuming convention organizers allow it to be brought to the floor. But delegates I talked to predicted that vote would only increase the majority in favour of accepting same-sex marriage.

This issue has a long history. The Reform Party emerged out of the West in the 1980s in part because social conservatives felt they did not have a voice in the Progressive Conservative Party. SoCons, as they are sometimes called, formed an important wing of the party in the early days.

But Stephen Harper from the beginning warned that Reformers should not become captive to the religious right. As a Reform MP in the 1990s, he voted against his party's opposition to protecting homosexuals in the Human Rights Act. "I think it's perfectly legitimate to have moral objections as well as moral approval of homosexuality," he said at the time. "But I don't think political parties should do that."

As leader of the Canadian Alliance, Mr. Harper opposed the Liberals' same-sex marriage legislation. For him and the party, it was a freedom too far. As Conservative leader, he promised a free vote in Parliament on whether to revisit the issue. When Parliament, including members of his own caucus, voted to preserve the legislation in 2006, the new prime minister happily dropped the matter and moved on.

But the party, as opposed to the government, remained committed to defending traditional marriage. Repeated efforts to have that opposition stripped out of the platform failed. This time, supporters of same-sex marriage succeeded.

Calgary MP Michelle Rempel, her voice quavering, told the delegates about her cousin. "She is brilliant, she contributes to our country, and she's gay," she said. "Our party is the party of equal rights. We are the party of equality and freedom, and it's about time we passed this resolution."

The delegates agreed. But there were hard feelings. Saskatoon MP Brad Trost complained that someone had warned him he would be challenged for his nomination unless he muted his opposition. If so, it did not work.

"Next election, I will say homosexual marriage, gay marriage, is wrong. I'll be public about it," he said. But he stood beside Ms. Rempel as he said it, and maintained, "I'm not walking away from the party."

Any political party must balance respect for the constituent parts of its coalition with the general will of the people. If support is still strong in the conservative movement for traditional marriage, a leadership candidate will emerge who represents that view, and all party members will cast a ballot either for that candidate or for someone else.

But Ms. LeBreton and Ms. Rempel are probably right. A modern conservative party can win an election on lower taxes, freer trade and support for victims of crime. It probably cannot win by dragging up remnants of the old U.S. fight over God, guns and gays.

That argument is waning there. It was never strong here. And as we saw on Friday, even among Conservatives, the SoCons' time has passed.

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