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At times like this, it's important to remember that most apparent conspiracies are usually the product of somebody messing up. Only that can explain the Conservative government's reaction to a legal opinion questioning the legality of same-sex marriage for overseas couples.

Stephen Harper was asked Thursday morning for his response to a Justice Department opinion, submitted in a same-sex divorce case, that off-shore same-sex couples who married in Canada were not legally married unless that such nuptials were legal in their home jurisdiction. Though he declared his majority Conservatives "have no intention of further re-opening or opening this issue," he appeared caught flat-footed on the specifics.

"I will admit to you that I am not aware of the details," the Prime Minister told reporters. "This I gather is a case before the courts where Canadian lawyers have taken a particular position based on the law and I will be asking officials to provide me more details."

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Mr. Harper's advisers must know that a huge political controversy has landed in their lap. Soon after The Globe and Mail published the story, the Twitterverse exploded, with more observant posters asking if this meant that couples of different races couldn't marry in Canada, or women couldn't get a driver's licence, if their native land forbade such things.

The conspiratorial would claim a hidden agenda, lumping this decision in with the campaign of Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth to force a debate on abortion in the House of Commons.

Mr. Harper, according to this line of reasoning, longs to reverse the liberal consensus on abortion and gay rights. But he knows that such a campaign would alienate voters who support his government's fiscal policies but want nothing to do with social conservatism.

So, according to the conspiracy theorists, while vowing he will take no action on abortion, Mr. Harper prohibits funding for family planning programs overseas and permits an MP to campaign for a debate on the issue in Parliament.

Or while insisting that same-sex marriage is a settled issue, he tries to delegitimize it for foreigners. Those who believe there was a shooter on the grassy knoll would embrace this sort of thing.

Another interpretation is the government was caught flat-footed by a lawyer's legal opinion, and is now stumbling around trying to deal with it.

Who knows which interpretation is true? What we do know is that this issue will dominate news conferences, political talk shows and – vastly more important – water coolers unless and until the Conservatives deal with it.

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If Mr. Harper wanted to launch a culture war through the back door, he has succeeded. If he was as surprised as everyone else by the lawyer's opinion, then he will need to deal with the matter – and deal with it soon.

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